Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Accused Zeta killer of U.S. ICE agent returns to D.C. federal court for hearing

Judge warns prosecutors that Mexico must cooperate fully in turning over evidence

Washington, D.C. -- A member of Mexico's powerful and most feared drug cartel, Los Zetas, returned to federal district court here this morning for the first of what will likely be dozens of pretrial hearings in the months ahead.

Julián Zapata Espinoza was extradited from Mexico to the United States in December to face murder and assault charges. One of the most high-profile Zetas ever wanted by U.S. authorities, Espinoza is alleged to have participated in the execution of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata on Feb. 15, 2011. Zapata's partner, Víctor Ávila, was seriously wounded in the attack, which occurred on a major highway in Mexico's San Luis Potosí state. The two unarmed agents were on a routine business trip that day, traveling by car from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. While in a government vehicle carrying U.S. diplomatic tags, a Zeta hit team of about 15 men forced them off the road. Zapata identified himself and Ávila as U.S. agents, at which time the gunmen opened fire with AK-47s. The motive for the attack remains unclear, although Espinoza, who was captured by Mexican soldiers eight days later, allegedly told authorities in this country that it was a "case of mistaken identity," and that the Zeta squad thought they were attacking a competing drug cartel. Espinoza has plead not guilty to the charges.

Today's hearing was a brief status conference. No evidence or testimony was presented. Apparently the case is "paper intensive," as we say in the legal business, and thousands of pages of investigative documents are yet in the hands of Mexican authorities, awaiting delivery to the attorneys. Under U.S. law almost all evidence which prosecutors intend to present at trial must be shared with the defense, especially if it is exculpatory in nature -- that is, if it tends to establish innocence, or might help the accused defend himself.

U.S. Chief District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth warned prosecutors that Mexico must fully cooperate in the production of all evidence connecting Espinoza to the case, or he would have to consider dismissing charges and returning Espinoza to be dealt with here. That's highly unlikely, as I see it, and was really little more than a standard "heads up" admonition to prosecutors, urging them to get their ducks in a row sooner rather than later. Prosecutors assured Lamberth that Mexico has been cooperating since Espinoza was arrested almost a year ago, and would continue to do so.

But Lamberth left no doubt about his expectations. "If Mexico wants to be our partner in the drug war, then when we ask for necessary materials and information, it means now."

All sorts of problems and interesting issues will be presented by this case, both practical and legal. First, tens of thousands of words will have to be translated from Spanish to English, guaranteeing plenty of work for competent translators. I noticed from the court docket sheet that one of the assistant U.S. attorneys who will be arguing the government's case has a very Mexican surname. Undoubtedly that's so he will be able to read and understand documents in the original Spanish, as well as Espinoza's own testimony, should he decide to take the stand at trial. A court certified simultaneous interpreter translates all of the proceedings for Espinoza, and she'll do likewise should he ultimately exercise his option to testify. But it's always better and more accurate to read anything, or to listen to someone, in the original language. Subtle alterations are virtually inevitable with language translation, even with highly trained professionals, and may unintentionally affect content or shades of meaning. Prosecutors have an edge with a bi-lingual attorney.

Legal questions abound as well in this case. Are inculpatory statements made by Espinoza to Mexican authorities, allegedly establishing his guilt, automatically admissible in a U.S. court? Federal prosecutors will certainly so argue, but the issue may not be quite that simple. And what about Mexican witnesses who Espinoza might want to call in his own defense? The U.S. Constitution absolutely guarantees him that right -- but how will it be enforced? Compelling witnesses to travel from Mexico to the United States to testify might prove daunting. Finally, will ICE agent Víctor Ávila, who survived the attack, be able to place Espinoza at the scene of the brutal crime?

Espinoza is represented in the case by appointed defense counsel. The next status conference hearing will be April 25. Both the prosecution and the defense asked Judge Lamberth to declare the case a complex matter under the Federal Speedy Trial Act, to give them additional time to prepare for trial, and he did so. It may be one of the few things the attorneys will agree on. It is unlikely that the case will be tried before the end of this year, and possibly not until 2013.

More details on this case are set forth in the stories linked below.

Los Zetas killer extradited to U.S.:
Los Zetas killer makes first U.S. court appearance:

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