No new trial for convicted Honduras ex-president in US drug case

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Juan Orlando Hernandez, the former Honduras president convicted in March of drug and firearms offenses, failed to persuade a U.S. judge to grant a new trial.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan rejected Hernandez's argument that the conviction was tainted because a U.S. drug enforcement agent testified that cocaine trafficking in Honduras went up during his presidency, though it went down. A prosecutor repeated the claim during closing arguments.

In a decision on Thursday, Castel also rejected Hernandez's argument that New York was the wrong place to try him.

Hernandez said he should have been tried in Florida because he had been allowed to exit a plane bound for New York to use the bathroom in Fort Lauderdale, following his April 2022 extradition from Tegucigalpa.

Renato Stabile, a lawyer for Hernandez, did not immediately respond to reuqests for comment.

Hernandez, 55, is expected to appeal his conviction. He faces a mandatory minimum 40 years in prison at his scheduled June 26 sentencing. He is being jailed in Brooklyn.

Though Hernandez had portrayed himself in Honduras as a law-and-order politician, U.S. prosecutors said he accepted millions of dollars in bribes to protect traffickers' U.S.-bound cocaine, and to fuel his political rise at home.

Hernandez's presidency ran from 2014 to 2022.

In seeking to discredit drug enforcement agent Jennifer Taul, Hernandez cited U.S. Department of State reports about the international drug trade, and testimony by a Honduras expert in the trial of a different defendant accused of trafficking.

Castel, however, said neither established that cocaine trafficking fell during Hernandez's presidency, and jurors could decide for themselves if Taul was credible.

The judge also found the issue "immaterial" to whether Hernandez conspired with drug traffickers, and said jurors would likely have found Hernandez guilty even if they did not believe Taul.

"Hernandez's conviction was based on the testimony, over the course of a three-week trial, of numerous witnesses whose testimony was corroborated in part by phone records and a recovered drug ledger," Castel wrote.

The case is U.S. v. Hernandez, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-cr-00379.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)