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Mexican convicted of murder for ramming U.S. Coast Guard officer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A jury convicted a Mexican man of murder on Wednesday for ramming his suspected smuggling vessel into a U.S. Coast Guard inflatable boat, killing an officer on board off the coast of Southern California in 2012, prosecutors said.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, was the first Coast Guard officer murdered on duty since 1927.

A federal jury in Los Angeles found Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada, Mexico, guilty of murder, two counts of failure to yield to a Coast Guard command and four counts of assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon, namely the so-called "panga" fishing vessel he was piloting.

His shipmate, Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, was convicted of two counts of failure to yield and four counts of assault as an accessory after the fact, U.S. prosecutors said in a statement.

The two men were suspected of using their panga boat to smuggle marijuana, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In December 2012, four Coast Guard officers in an inflatable boat approached the panga off the shore of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California. Meija-Leyva rammed the inflatable with his panga, throwing Horne and another officer into the water, prosecutors said in a statement.

Horne died from a boat propeller strike to the head and the other officer escaped with a cut on his knee.

"We are pleased with the verdict and that those responsible for Senior Chief Horne's death will be held accountable," Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr, commandant of the Coast Guard, said in a statement.

Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera are scheduled to return to court on May 12 to be sentenced. Meija-Leyva faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and Beltran-Higuera could receive up to 60 years behind bars.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Ken Wills)

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