(CN) - A federal marshal neared "psychobabble" in saying that a prayer to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, by itself indicates criminal activity, the 10th Circuit ruled, in an opinion by the court's first Hispanic judge.
Police officer Arsenio Chavez stopped Maria Medina-Copete and Rafael Goxcon-Chagal in New Mexico for following another vehicle too closely.
Chavez testified that the vehicle smelled overwhelmingly of air freshener, and that both occupants seemed extremely nervous. The couple also gave inconsistent stories when asked where they were travelling, and whom they were going to visit.
Medina-Copete appeared to be praying during the stop while holding a piece of paper in her hands.
The officer later found that the paper was a prayer to Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of the Holy Death, a folk saint venerated in Mexico and the United States. The saint is associated with healing, protection and a safe delivery to the afterlife, but she is not recognized by the Catholic Church.
After gaining consent to search the vehicle, Chavez found a secret compartment concealed in the dash areas containing nearly two pounds of roughly 90 percent pure methamphetamine.
Arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute meth, the couple claimed at trial they were unaware of the drugs' presence in the borrowed truck.
Citing precedent for concluding that "the presence of personal items related to so-called narco saints can support a conclusion that a defendant was engaged in drug trafficking," the trial court permitted U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte to testify for the government on the cultural relevance to the drug trade of Santa Muerte veneration.
Almonte told the jury that "very often criminal drug traffickers and other criminals pray to her for protection from law enforcement or anybody else they consider to be their enemy."
Although he conceded that noncriminals also pray to Santa Muerte, he said that the prayer found in Medina's hands, even without any other evidence of a crime, "would be a very good indicator of possible criminal activity."
In support of this, the agent cited a line of the prayer that asks the saint to let "no one prevent me from receiving the prosperity that I am asking of you today."
The marshal also told the jury that a similar prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes, would not be a sign of suspicious behavior because "St. Jude is a legitimate Catholic saint." A criminal praying to St. Jude would be "misusing him," Almonte said.
Both Medina-Copete and Goxcon-Chagal were found guilty and sentenced to 180 months in prison each.
Granting the couple a new trial Wednesday, a three-judge panel with the 10th Circuit called on Almonte's testimony "impermissible and prejudicial.'
The New Mexico trial court made several errors, according to the 32-page opinion.
"First, it applied our 'tools of the trade' jurisprudence to Almonte's purported area of expertise without considering whether a prayer could qualify as a 'tool of the drug trade' as we have previously used that phrase," Judge Carlos Lucero wrote for the Denver-based court. "Second, it allowed Almonte to testify as an expert based on his experience without considering the relevance or breadth of that experience, thereby eliding the 'facts or data' requirement found in Rule 702(b). Third, it engaged in circular reasoning in determining that Almonte's opinion was not an 'unfounded extrapolation.'"
Lucero is the first Hispanic judge appointed to sit on the 10th Circuit.
He said Almonte's "expert testimony characterizing the mere presence of the prayer as 'a very good indicator of possible criminal activity' approaches psychobabble and substantially influenced the outcome" of the trial in a prejudicial manner.
Almonte "essentially painted the defendants in this case as heretics, holding beliefs 'not recognized by the Catholic Church either in Mexico or the United States,'" the ruling states. "He stated, '[a]s a matter of fact, the Catholic Church in Mexico and in [the] United States does not condone the prayer or worship of Santa Muerte.' All of this may be true, but that is not the point. A criminal trial is no place for a theological disputation on sainthood and the power of prayer."