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Guard who killed U.S. teenager in Costa Rica acquitted and set free after retrial

October 2, 2013

A three-judge panel set free a private security guard who shot and killed a visiting Kansas student in 2011, overturning a 15-year manslaughter sentence from a previous trial, the daily La Nación reported.

The guard, a Nicaraguan man named Jorge Guevara, 37, shot Justin Johnston, who was 16, at a La Fortuna hotel in northern Costa Rica in June 2011. Johnston was on a nine-day Spanish club trip staying at La Cangreja Lodge, where Guevara worked.  Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) said Johnston and a friend snuck out of the hotel late at night, and on their return Guevara shot Johnston, mistaking the teenagers for intruders.

A court found Guevara guilty of manslaughter in August 2012 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison plus a $720,000 fine to be paid to the Johnston family.

Guevara testified at the first trial that he fired a warning shot into the air, frightening the teenagers, who began running towards the hotel. He fired again in the direction of the students and fatally wounded Justin. Johnston’s parents say his classmate testified “there was no warning shot.”

Nevertheless, Guevara won his second trial arguing that the state had failed to prove he intended to kill Johnston. On Monday, an appeals court in San Carlos overturned the initial conviction.

“The responsibility for the incident, from a legal point of view, was with the student, now deceased, for his imprudent actions in running from an adjacent field to the hotel, in the early morning hours, leading to the error,” said Luis Calderón, one of the judges, according to La Nación.

The Johnston family declined to comment at press time. The Kansas City Star interviewed the couple when news of the retrial broke.

Wendi Johnston expressed anguish at having to return to Costa Rica after having dealt with one trial.

“We’d been through so much financially and emotionally,” Wendi told the Star. “How could we do this again?”

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