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.