Devotion to Santa Muerte is not probable cause

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 7, 2014 — 17 Comments

Last week, two individuals charged with firearm and drug trafficking charges had their convictions overturned on appeal thanks to authorities using their devotion to the Mexican folk-saint Santa Muerte to “taint” proceedings. In the decision handed down by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court blasted using the expert testimony of U.S. Marshall Robert Almonte, who government prosecutors described as a “cultural iconography hobbyist.”

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

Photo: Time Magazine / EFE / ZUMAPRESS

“Missing from the district court’s discussion of Almonte’s qualifications is any discussion of how his Santa Muerte testimony could legitimately connect Medina’s prayer to drug trafficking. There is no evidence that Santa Muerte iconography is ‘associational,’ nor was there any allegation that the ‘main purpose’ of Santa Muerte veneration ‘was to traffic in’ narcotics. Cf. id. at 1562, 1563. Almonte testified that there may be ‘millions’ of followers of Santa Muerte, but he proffered no manner of distinguishing individuals who pray to Santa Muerte for illicit purposes from everyone else. His data comes from his work as a narcotics detective and his compilation of ‘several cases from law enforcement officers throughout the United States where these items have been involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity.’ Mere observation that a correlation exists—especially when the observer is a law enforcement officer likely to encounter a biased sample—does not meaningfully assist the jury in  determining guilt or innocence.”

The decision went on to note that describing Santa Muerte as a “tool” of the drug trade was, legally speaking, a bit of a reach on the part of prosecution.

“The government’s inability at every stage of litigation to explain precisely how Santa Muerte can be “used” elucidates the poor fit between our ‘tools of the trade’ jurisprudence and Almonte’s purported area of expertise. It also highlights that further inquiry by the district court would have revealed that Almonte’s testimony would not properly ‘help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.'”

In short, mere devotion to Santa Muerte is not probable cause, and can’t be used to tie someone to the drug trade. On reading the decision Dr. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” tweeted that this was a “big blow” to self-appointed hobbyist experts within law enforcement.

Chesnut went on to tell the Associated Press that “Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases, but she is not just a narco saint, and many of her devotees aren’t involved in criminal behavior.” Chesnut has long advocated against law enforcement trusting the testimony of self-appointed experts on this often misunderstood religious movement, and has written in-depth about Santa Muerte and other folk-saints for Huffington Post.

So what does this ruling mean? It means that the two accused in this case will get a new trial, one that will leave out testimony regarding Santa Muerte, and it is also a huge blow against the liberal use of self-made occult and “cult” experts in criminal trials. This is very good news for anyone who practices a misunderstood minority religion in the United States. It is easy to scare a jury with tales of strange belief systems, when the focus should be on presentation of material evidence in a particular case.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Good decision, but it does nothing to stop the “experts” from returning to their fallback vocation, lecturing cops (on the public dime) about “occult crimes.”

    • Charles Cosimano

      They do it because they know that cops are stupid enough to believe anything.

  • Daikan

    Also, it is of notice how this so-called “experts” fail to make the far greater connection between “Guadalupanos” (followers of the Virgin Mary) and organized crime. Statistically, more criminals from a latin american background tend to be follower of that particular branch of catholisism or most branches of chrystianity.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker


    • kenofken

      Until the 1980s, virtually 100% of the big players in American organized crime were Roman Catholic – Italian and Irish, minus the Jewish contingent like the Lansky gang.

      • Deborah Bender

        Right, and it’s usually about ethnicity, because the fastest ways for poor immigrants and the working class to get ahead in America are organized crime and professional sports. If you look at the heavyweight boxing champions from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, that pattern is obvious.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Good for the 10th Circuit, not exactly a bastion of liberality. Looking forward to reading the entire opinion.

  • TadhgMor

    Ah hobbyist experts. I don’t know how many self-described “scholars” I’ve run into.

    Shame how they seem to keep getting roles teaching others, despite the fact that they have no qualifications.

    • Deborah Bender

      I was one of those, briefly, a while ago, and I cringe at the thought of the content of the lecture I gave.

      • TadhgMor

        I try to make sure what my qualifications are or aren’t is publicly known.

        But I’ve gotten into countless arguments with people sure they know something about “Celtic” culture and history that are going from very very unreliable sources. Almost as bad as that old “the ancient Irish did potato rituals” book. Drives me insane. I’m actually hoping to work on a general readership book on Old Irish law and society, because the sources that exist all lean towards thick scholarly tomes.

        Thankfully I don’t think it will ever come up in court. The issue for Celtic Recons overall is the Disneyfication of history and ritual, distorted by modern assumptions bias, and just plain old errors in past scholarship. I don’t think anyone has associated us with crime haha.

        Course, I got a court date in a few days and I’m still going to pretend to be a Christian because I know what it’s like around here, so I guess I’m not super confident in that assertion.

        • Deborah Bender

          History is one of the few fields in which amateurs and independent scholars still make contributions. Astronomy is another.

          And of course, turning primary and secondary sources into books for the general reader has always been an honorable occupation.

          However, instruction for professionals should usually be done by professionals with equivalent qualifications in their field.

          • TadhgMor

            Eh less honorable than “I need a way to pay for grad school and I think I can pitch this to a big publisher and bank off the craze for Irish things in the US”. As well as pointing light on a poorly understood period of Irish history. Most people I’ve met, even those who are interested, don’t really understand how foreign early medieval Ireland was in law and thought from the rest of the European tradition most people know.

          • Deborah Bender

            “Honorable” does not necessarily imply “altruistic”.

        • Deborah Bender

          None of my business, but your religion shouldn’t come up in court at all for most criminal cases.

          Even if they expect you to swear on a Bible, if you don’t have a conscientious scruple against oath-taking in general, that’s no more deceptive than agreeing to take on oath on a stack of daily newspapers. “So help me God” (which some but not all bailiffs add) will be a problem for some, but they aren’t specifying _which_ god.

          • TadhgMor

            I have an objection to the Bible swearing. It’s dishonest to me. But I’ve been advised just to pretend. The “so help me God” bit will no doubt be added her as well. Since that’s not a phrase I would ever use, even being non-specific doesn’t really help much. It’s still a clearly foreign phrase to me.

            But it is what it is. This is I think the definition of a “microaggression”. It bothers me, but it’s not worth the consequences of fighting it.

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    Even the “occult crime” lecture circuit appears to be waning. I have lived and worked in small towns much of my adult life. In several of them I’ve known the local Chief of Police, as well as many of the officers. Nothing remarkable in this – these are small places. Anyway, the last time I saw such a self-proclaimed “expert” have a lecture on “occult crime” was 1999. The lecture included tips on how to spot the “adult recruiter”. Oddly, nobody looked my way, but, then, I’ve never been into recruiting people, I guess.

    Intolerance is still a huge problem in small communities. I would surely have lost my job, at the very least, had I been exposed as Pagan, in most of the towns where I lived.

    But, it’s getting better. Even small town cops are increasingly skeptical of the very idea of “occult crime”. When you can worship Santa Muerte without law enforcement assuming you’re a dealer, or when you can be Heathen without law enforcement assuming you’re a Nazi, or when you can practice any religion without being automatically judged a criminal, everyone benefits.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      That’s good news about the “occult crime” crap, thanks. It was all over the papers just as I turned into a baby Pagan and sorta imprinted me.Tossing Santa Muerte “evidence” gives me hope that the use of lyrics from YouTube rappers will be barred as constructive confessions unless they contain details absolutely unavailable to the public.