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Drug convictions overturned thanks to Death Saint



By Russell Contreras

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Firearms and drug-trafficking convictions for two Oklahoma residents were overturned Wednesday thanks to a skeleton saint known as La Santa Muerte.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a law enforcement expert on Santa Muerte tainted the convictions of Rafael Goxcon-Chagal, 53, and Maria Vianey Medina-Copete, 38, by testifying the folk saint was "a very good indicator of possible criminal activity."

That testimony was close to "psychobabble and substantially influenced the outcome" of the trial, the appeals court wrote.

The appeals court ordered a new trial for the couple.

Goxcon-Chagal and Medina-Copete, both of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were convicted in August 2012 of trafficking methamphetamine. In addition to illegal drugs, a Santa Muerte prayer card was found with the couple during a traffic stop that led to their 2011 arrests, authorities said.

Both were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

During their trial, prosecutors called upon U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte in West Texas to discuss the use of Santa Muerte, which translates in English to Death Saint, among drug traffickers. Almonte, who has trained law enforcement agents and written about Santa Muerte, has been used in previous cases to testify about the folk saint.

Although Almonte testified in the couple's case that not all Santa Muerte devotees were linked to criminal behavior, the appeals court said his remarks were used by prosecutors in closing arguments and were "highly prejudicial to the defendants."

Popular in Mexico, and sometimes linked to the illicit drug trade, Santa Muerte is folk saint also worshipped by some artists, gay activists, the poor and immigrant small business owners in the U.S.

Clad in a black nun's robe and holding a scythe in one hand, Santa Muerte appeals to people for a number of reasons, religious experts said. Often, devotees seek the saint's help to fend off wrongdoing, carry out vengeance or stop lovers from cheating.

Santa Muerte is not recognized by the Catholic Church, and some Vatican officials have denounced the folk saint.

Andrew Chesnut, author of "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint" and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, called the appeals court's ruling "a landmark decision." He said it was the first time to his knowledge that a conviction has been overturned because the folk saint was used in a trial.

"Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases," Chesnut said. "But she is not just a narco saint, and many of her devotees aren't involved in criminal behavior."

Some drug traffickers pray to St. Jude, a recognized Catholic saint, but that deity is rarely brought up in criminal cases, Chesnut said.

Join the discussion

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spankster59 July 03 2014 at 7:24 AM

another stunning landmark decision by a collection of overpaid, clueless halfwits...order a new trials, with all of the expense and grief that goes with it because this was prejudicial?? guess the drugs and guns were just a coincidence...

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3 replies
thorrsman July 03 2014 at 6:14 AM

"Some drug traffickers pray to St. Jude, a recognized Catholic saint, but that deity is rarely brought up in criminal cases, Chesnut said."

"Deity"?

Since when is a saint considered a God?

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6 replies
bailey.willie July 03 2014 at 7:05 AM

YOU ARE KIDDING. WHAT A JOKE. IS THE COURT OF APPEALS FOR REAL

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boardsrbetter July 03 2014 at 9:50 AM

These drug trafficers really are morbid.

They pray to Santa muerte: Our lady holy death.


And Saint Jude: The patron saint of lost causes.

I sense daddy issues.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
4 replies
IBruzEZ July 03 2014 at 6:53 AM

To me, it is like saying you found a crack pipe on a person but that would be prejudicial to the jury to talk about. There are things that indicate a closer look at a person and that shouldn't be thrown out of court. Some snarky lawyer and the state gets to pay for a whole new trial.

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1 reply
smashingmonkey IBruzEZ July 03 2014 at 9:24 AM

To me, it would be like saying "these people have certain religious beliefs so they are more likely guilty of crime." Which is despicable.

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jgesselberty July 03 2014 at 8:47 AM

Now we cannot use the truth against criminals. The Death Saint has a well known, and well established following in the drug community. But, say that in court and the criminals get a pass? And, by the way, true saints, of any religion, were actual people who are recognized for their lives or works. They are not gods, and we pray for them to intercede for us with the one God.

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3 replies
ERIC July 03 2014 at 9:27 AM

I'm just astounded that Governmental Prosecutors actually needed and were allowed to present this junk science "expert" in Court in the first place-"an indicator of possible criminal activity?" c'mon.-what isn't then? Especially in a criminal case (proof beyond a reasonable doubt). That's almost like those phony drug sniffing dogs that supposedly "alert" (tail up, tail down, tail left, tail right-makes no difference - your car will be torn apart at some police garage).

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1 reply
cqdeed ERIC July 03 2014 at 9:19 PM

Funny isn't it, how often those phony drug sniffing dogs are correct. It seems they are only wrong when the drugs have already been removed but the smell is still there.

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LA is Best July 03 2014 at 1:20 PM

WOW, It's a good thing that they weren't Christians or they would have hung!

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Thrift Store July 03 2014 at 1:02 PM

What scary is the idiot jurors beleived it

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1 reply
LA is Best Thrift Store July 03 2014 at 1:21 PM

Yes, they are low information oBOMBa voters!

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1 reply
peg2584 LA is Best July 03 2014 at 10:29 PM

You mean low information prejudicial Bible bangers.

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Chuck July 03 2014 at 10:54 AM

Religions - all of them - remain a plague on society. Even the quasi/psychobabble/goofy ones.....

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1 reply
frankerin Chuck July 03 2014 at 11:42 AM

Must be atheists jumping the weekend

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