Claiming that he was acting under duress when he located an informant marked for murder by a drug cartel, Jesus Gerardo Ledezma Cepeda supported his defense with the expert testimony of a documentary filmmaker. The filmmaker testified as an expert in drug cartel violence.
Juan Jesús Guerrero Chapa was gunned down in Southlake, Texas while sitting at the wheel of his Range Rover. His killers were able to locate him for two reasons. First, a GPS unit attached to the undercarriage of his Range Rover was broadcasting his position. Second, he had been stalked for weeks by Ledezma Cepeda and his cousin, Jose Luis Cepeda Cortes. Both men conducted surveillance of Guerrero Chapa and attached the GPS unit to his vehicle.
Guerrero Chapa had acted as an attorney for Mexican drug cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. A cartel leader known as “El Gato” ordered Guerrero Chapa’s death because Guerrero Chapa chose to act as informant against his client on behalf of the U.S. government.
Law enforcement agents have not found the killers. They did find Ledezma Cepeda and Cepeda Cortes. Both men were charged with interstate stalking and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Cepeda Cortes testified that he did not know why his cousin was tracking Guerrero Chapa, while Ledezma Cepeda testified that he was coerced into acting on behalf of El Gato.
Downplaying the role the government played in Guerrero Chapa’s death by failing to protect him after enlisting his services as an informant, a federal prosecutor told the jury that Ledezma Cepeda and Cepeda Cortes led the killers to Guerrero Chapa. The defendants agreed that they tracked Guerrero Chappa but denied that El Gato told them he intended to have Guerrero Chapa killed.
Ledezma Cepeda, a private investigator in Mexico, testified that finding people is his job. Portraying the evidence in a different light, the prosecutor argued that Ledezma Cepeda made a living hunting down men for El Gato, who then had them tortured and killed.
Cepeda Cortes testified that he was just doing a favor for Ledezma Cepeda and was in the dark about any plans El Gato had for Guerrero Chappa. Prosecutors asked the jury to infer Cepeda Cortes’ knowledge of the murder conspiracy from his decision to use fake names when he set up email and GPS tracker accounts, and from his expressed desire to work with his cousin again after the murder occurred.
The defense argued that the authorities should go after El Gato, a former Mexican federal agent. According to the defense, prosecuting the defendants was a face-saving measure, motivated by the government’s embarrassment about the death of Guerrero Chapa while he was under the protection of Homeland Security. The government may also have been embarrassed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection designated El Gato as a “pre-approved, low-risk traveler” who was entitled to expedited entry into the United States using Trusted Traveler lanes.
The Defense of Duress
Ledezma Cepeda testified that he was forced to find and follow Guerrero Chapa. He told the jury that El Gato would have harmed his family in Mexico if he had not performed the assignment.
The defense of duress is rarely successful in a criminal case. Judges typically conclude that no reasonable jury could find that the defendant met the legal standard required to establish the defense. For that reason, they typically refuse a defendant’s request to instruct the jury that it can acquit the defendant if the defendant committed the crime under duress.
A typical formulation of the jury instruction for duress tells the jury that if the defendant’s guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury should find the defendant guilty unless the defendant proved that each of the following facts is probably true:
- First, that the defendant was facing an immediate, unlawful threat of death or serious bodily injury to himself or to others;
- Second, that the defendant had a well-grounded fear that the threat would be carried out if he did not commit the offense;
- Third, that the defendant’s criminal action was directly caused by the need to avoid the threatened harm and that the defendant had no reasonable, lawful opportunity to avoid the threatened harm without committing the offense (in other words, the defendant had no reasonable lawful opportunity both to refuse to do the criminal act and also to avoid the threatened harm); and
- Fourth, that the defendant did not recklessly place himself in a situation in which he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct.
Defendants who raise a duress defense usually falter when they encounter the third element of the defense. Unless a defendant has a gun pointed at his head at all times, a defendant usually has an opportunity to avoid harm by seeking the protection of the police.
Expert Evidence of Duress
Gary Fleming, a documentary filmmaker, testified as an expert witness for Ledezma Cepeda. Fleming gained expertise in drug cartels when he interviewed cartel members for a documentary. He testified that he has attended cartel meetings at which “green lights” were given to kill people.
Fleming testified that cartel members commonly use the expression “Lead is cheaper than silver,” meaning it is cheaper to kill people who refuse their demands than to pay them for their work. Fleming explained that cartels use fear and terror to induce compliance with their wishes.
In a moment of drama, Fleming pointed at Ledezma Cepeda and said, “That’s a walking dead man right there.” Fleming explained that he expects the cartel to kill Ledezma Cepeda whether he goes to prison or walks free.
The judge allowed the jury to consider the duress defense, but the jury rejected it. The prosecutor argued that accepting the duress defense would be like giving Ledezma Cepeda a “get out of jail free” card that could be played every time he commits a crime. Jurors evidently agreed. The jury found both defendants guilty.
Ledezma Cepeda and his cousin face the possibility of life sentences. The minimum sentence the judge is allowed to impose in each case is 25 years in prison.