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February 26, 2010

Major Mexican drug boss gets 25 years in super-secret federal sentencing

An interesting super-secret sentencing proceeding took place earlier this week as reported in this Houston Chronicle article from yesterday, which is headlined "Drug cartel chief sentenced in secrecy," and this New York Times article today, which is headlined "Mexican Drug Kingpin Sentenced to 25 Years in Secret Hearing."  Here is the start of the NYT coverage:

One of the most brutal and feared drug kingpins in Mexican history was sentenced this week to 25 years in prison during a highly secretive hearing here that was closed to the public to protect the lives of everyone involved, according to a court transcript unsealed Thursday.

Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the head of the Gulf Cartel, which controls much of the cocaine traffic across the border in South Texas, has agreed to cooperate with the federal government, according to the transcript.  Mr. Cárdenas pleaded guilty to five counts in a lengthy indictment, including drug dealing, money laundering and the attempted murder and assault of federal agents.  He also forfeited $50 million in assets.

The sentencing took place in a federal courtroom in Houston behind locked doors and armed guards before Judge Hilda G. Tagle, who granted the government’s request to bar the public.  Only two members of Mr. Cárdenas’s family and a handful of federal agents were present.

Judges often seal particular documents in drug and terrorism trials to protect informants or continuing investigations, but it is highly unusual to seal a sentencing hearing for security reasons.

Notably, the Houston Chronicle has this potent new editorial complaining about all the secrecy in this case.  The piece is titled "Justice hidden: Drug kingpin Cardenas’ sentencing hearing was wrongly kept from public view." Here are snippets:

Cardenas was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison here Wednesday, but no member of the public was present to witness it.  None of this proceeding, held in a federal courtroom, took place within public view.  The sentencing hearing, conducted by U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle, was not listed on the judge's public schedule till after it was completed. It was kept closed without any explanation until after the fact.

Even the terms of the drug kingpin's sentence remain unclear, since most of the prosecution was handled through closed hearings and sealed documents. It is not clear, for example, how much time Cardenas will actually serve.

This is unacceptable.  Cardenas deserves no such special treatment.

“There's no reason for holding the Cardenas sentencing hearing in secret, especially when so many high-profile organized crime, drug kingpin and terrorist trials have not been handled this way,” said Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association legislative advisory committee.  “It undermines the public's confidence in the federal court system and makes our government less accountable.”

Indeed it does.  Given Cardenas' violent history, concerns about security are understandable. But these can and should be addressed without denying public access to the justice system. “At a minimum, the public should be entitled to an explanation of why secrecy is being granted,” said Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen.  “That has not happened in the Cardenas case, and it is wrong.”

These are quintessentially public matters.  They involve public safety.  Public dollars.  Even public health and well-being. This very public business must be conducted in full public view.

February 26, 2010 at 08:48 AM | Permalink


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The cynical version: They wanted to cover their asses by handing down what seems like a stiff sentence to a bad guy rather than publicly going light on a very nasty snitch. They fully expect a reversal and will deal it out quietly afterwards.

Posted by: David Feige | Feb 26, 2010 6:37:28 PM

Deutschland deutschland uber alles.

Posted by: mpb | Feb 27, 2010 8:59:52 PM

I think Imihgt have spelled deutchland wrong.
The fact that none of the usual bloggers have chimned in makes me consider the status of the free state to be in more jeopardy than a free state can withstand. Secret plea, secret sentencing, secret judicial process. Is this a Mexican, Soviet or Nazi construct? It is not American.

Posted by: mpb | Feb 27, 2010 11:58:33 PM

Is there any indication that Cardenas objected to the sealed proceedings? I'm guessing not, given what he has at risk for his cooperator status. If so, there may be a 1st Amend. issue about media access, but closing the proceeding is hardly equivalent to Nazi or Soviet justice.

Posted by: Jay | Feb 28, 2010 2:16:59 PM

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