GRANADA, Nicaragua—After a year of what can only be described as judicial retardation, the long overdue appeal hearing for U.S. citizen Jason Puracal could possibly be wrapped up by Friday afternoon.
The rehearing, which started Thursday morning in the dour and claustrophobic cement-block confines of the Granada Appeals Court, is already halfway finished and could be concluded by today, according to Puracal’s defense team.
“This has been a whirlwind all of a sudden,” says sister Janis Puracal, who just last week was pleading with Nicaraguan judicial authorities to set a date for her brother’s appeal hearing. Now she is suddenly hopeful that a final verdict could be handed down by late next week, after judges take several days to deliberate.
The U.S. Embassy is also pleased the case is finally creaking forward.
“I am very encouraged that the appeal process is moving forward now,” U.S. Ambassador Phyllis Powers told The Nicaragua Dispatch Thursday afternoon. “We have been requesting that the judicial process move forward according to Nicaraguan law. Since I have been here (in April), I have spoken of his case to all levels of the government.”
The ambassador added, “The case is getting started again and hopefully we’ll have a positive outcome.”
Powers says the Embassy shares concerns about Puracal’s prison conditions. The Nicaragua government eventually responded to the international pressure by moving Puracal out of general population and into a “white-collar” cell usually reserved for politicians, bankers and other fleshy crooks. The results of the cell upgrade are immediately apparent; Puracal strode into court yesterday looking noticeably healthier and stronger than the woebegone and emaciated inmate pictured in photographs circulated by his family several months ago.
In Puracal’s first media showing in a year, the Washington native was shackled but poised as he entered the courtroom yesterday. He even showed residual glimmers of the confidence he once exuded as a young realtor riding high on the early days of San Juan del Sur’s property boom.
The ‘House Hunters’ defense
Puracal’s defense lawyer Fabbrith Gómez yesterday tried to introduce three pieces of evidence that had been denied consideration during the original criminal trial: a letter from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); a video of President Daniel Ortega participating in a 2009 political rally in one of the alleged narco-fincas with which Puracal is associated; and a video of Puracal showing oceanfront homes to wide-eyed gringo homebuyers on a 2007 edition of HGTV’s House Hunters International.
Of the three pieces of evidence, only the letter from the DEA (saying the U.S. has no knowledge of Puracal’s involvement in international criminal activity) was admitted by the appellate judges. However, the two pieces of video evidence that were thrown out of court were far more intriguing—at least to those watching the proceedings from the peanut gallery.
The first was a video featuring President Ortega participating in a political rally to launch the 2009 harvest season at a private farm called “Finca El Petén,” in the northern department of Jinotega. The president’s participation in the event is relevant, according to defense counsel Gómez, because it happened two years after Nicaraguan Police supposedly started investigating the farm’s connection to Puracal’s alleged narco-gang.
Gómez claims the president’s involvement at the event refutes the police’s claim that they were investigating the farm as a narco-hideout.
“It’s not possible that police intelligence would have allowed President Ortega to participate in an event at Finca El Petén if the farm was under investigation for two years for involvement in money-laundering and drug trafficking,” Gómez argued.
Indeed, when Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo visited El Petén in June of 2009, the president hailed the farm as a leading model of sustainable, organic food production, and called the finca’s North American owner, Christopher Robertson, a “good yanqui.”
Robertson, a longtime resident of Nicaragua, told me in 2010 that he has a positive and transparent relationship with the Sandinista administration, and they are very familiar with his sustainable agricultural farming operations.
State prosecutors argued that the video of Ortega at El Petén is impertinent to the trial and should not be allowed as evidence. Prosecutors said Gómez’s attempt to include the video in the proceedings represents a “judicial fallacy” that presumes everyone should be declared innocent just because the president once visited a farm that’s involved in the case. In addition, prosecutors said, the video would just “politicize the case.”
Appellate judge Roberto Rodríguez refused to allow the Ortega video as evidence.
The second video presented by the defense was equally curious—and probably marks the first time in trial history that a lawyer has attempted to use an episode of House Hunters International as proof that his client not a drug smuggler.
Gómez argued that Puracal’s involvement in a 2007 episode of the popular real estate TV show is an important part of establishing his client’s “honorability and credibility” (apparently Gómez is not entirely familiar with the show, but neither was the rest of the court, judging by the lively and entertaining debate that followed).
Prosecutor Rodrigo Zambria argued the House Hunters video was entirely “impertinent” to the case, adding ,“We never denied that (Puracal) was involved in real estate.”
Judge Rodríguez ultimately denied the second video as well, thereby denying the few English speakers in the courtroom the chance to enjoy some more cheap chuckles as Nicaraguan prosecutors, lawyers and magistrates all mispronounced—with various degrees of hilarity—the words “House Hunters.”
1 for 3 is still batting over .300
Though Gómez was only able to get one of the three pieces of evidence admitted to the appellate hearing, he says the real victory was getting the DEA letter included in the proceedings.
Plus, he said, if the appellate court respects the presumption of innocence, that should be enough to get Puracal’s sentence overturned.
“I am not worried about (the video evidence being rejected),” Gómez told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a pause in the trial. “We’ll still win the appeal because the prosecution doesn’t have any evidence against Jason.”