LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A couple's convictions for distributing $20,000 worth of methamphetamine have been reversed in part because a federal prosecutor cited their belief in "Jesús Malverde" – known as the patron saint of narcotraffickers but also revered in Mexico as the angel of the poor.
Writing for a three-judge panel, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John K. Bush of Louisville said in an opinion Wednesday that the attack on the defendants' religious beliefs was "utterly irrelevant to the question of guilt."
Bush said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West improperly used Luis Morales-Montanez's belief in the deity to imply he was "steeped in the drug culture" and to attack his credibility.
“A prosecutor may strike hard blows but is not at liberty to strike foul ones,” said Bush, who was appointed last year by President Donald Trump at the recommendation of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The prosecutor crossed the line in this case."
Vacating the sentences of Morales-Montanez and Jessica Acosta and granting them a new trial, the panel said in its 3-0 ruling that "American courts universally condemn the injection of religion into legal proceedings" and that there was no "non-prejudicial explanation" for West's remarks.
West and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Jesús Malverde has been revered for nearly a century in northwestern Mexico as a Robin Hood-type figure who took from the rich and gave to the poor, until he was killed by the police in 1909.
Malverde means "evil green" in Spanish, and he supposedly was nicknamed by his wealthy victims, from the association between green and misfortune.
Although he is worshiped by drug dealers, according to experts on Mexican culture and law enforcement officials, the poor also pray to Malverde for money and safe passage across the border into the United States.
Journalist Sam Quinones has written there is no evidence that the Malverde of legend ever lived, and the story probably emerged by mixing material from the lives of two documented bandits from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Courts in California, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas have ruled that Malverde trinkets and talismans are admissible evidence in drug and money-laundering cases, the New York Times has reported, quoting a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who said that while they are not a direct indication of guilt, they could be cited with other evidence, such as piles of cash, baggies and scales.
Prospective jurors in the trial earlier this year of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, were asked whether they were familiar with Malverde, according to the El Paso Times.
And in an episode of "Breaking Bad," a federal drug agent keeps a Malverde bust on his desk to “help him know his enemy” and refers to him as the patron saint of drug dealers.
But writing in Huffington Post, R. Andrew Chesnut, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said such portrayals are simplistic and ignore Malverde’s appeal to the poor, those with disabilities, construction workers and migrants.
Chesnut said to hundreds of thousands of devotees, Malverde is el ángel de los pobres, the angel of the poor.
"He is a multitasker – people approach him for health, wealth and love," Chesnut said in an interview in which he described the prosecutor's remarks as "totally out of bounds."
The folklore hero figured in the 2017 trial of Morales-Montanez and Acosta in Lexington, in which they were found guilty of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. They were sentenced to 15 years in prison on that and other charges.
In his cross-examination of Morales-Montanez, West asked how his worship of Malverde fit into his beliefs as a Catholic.
"Do you understand that there is a commandment that says thou shall not have any god before me?" the prosecutor asked.
In his closing argument, West said Morales-Montanez "prays for protection from police" and "prays that he doesn't get caught."
"I wonder how many prayers he said to Malverde before he walked into the courtroom," West said. "I wonder if he said a prayer for protection from the jurors of Central Kentucky."
The couple were arrested after police searched their Lexington home and discovered copious amounts of marijuana and cocaine as well as digital scales, $45,507 in cash – and a shrine to Malverde.
They pleaded guilty to cocaine, marijuana and firearms charges but denied knowing anything about 2 pounds of meth found in a nearby apartment that Acosta had rented.
Morales-Montanez described himself as a "weed man" who only recently had expanded into cocaine to beef up his income for the Christmas season, according to the opinion.
The couple said they sublet the apartment to a man named Brian Barnes, who they claimed they didn’t know was a major methamphetamine dealer ultimately sentenced to 17 years in prison for trafficking.
Testifying for the defense, Barnes backed them up, saying they didn’t know anything about his profession or why he rented the apartment.
But West, the prosecutor, said none of them was believable and cited Morales-Montanez’s beliefs to undermine his credibility, calling him the “worshiper of a deity of a drug trafficking entity who prays for protection from police, prosecutors, court systems and juries.”
Bush wrote for the court that while the evidence against the defendants wasn’t overwhelming, it was sufficient to convict them – if not for West’s improper comments.
Besides the religious remarks, the panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said the prosecutor also improperly vouched for the government’s witnesses – he called one officer "a fine young man" — while calling the defense witnesses liars.
Bush wrote the trial was "flagrantly unfair because of the prosecutor’s flagrant misconduct."
He was joined by Judge Raymond Kethledge of Michigan. Judge Helene White, also of Michigan, said she was voting to reverse only because of the prosecutor’s comments on Morales-Montanez’s religious practice and beliefs.
Follow Andrew Wolfson on Twitter: @adwolfson
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: A prosecutor ridiculed a couple's patron saint. So a court reversed their drug convictions