What We Learned at Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman's Federal Court Appearance

From questioning the conditions of his incarceration to the extradition itself, the drug kingpin's hearing shed light on the case's many complexities

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman appeared in federal court this morning. This case will be a long one. Credit: Elizabeth Williams/AP

UPDATE: At a May 5th hearing, a Brooklyn judge set April 2018 as the tentative start date for the trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's trial. During the hearing, Chapo also announced he would be keeping his current legal team, waiving his right to conflict-free counsel, as his court-appointed lawyers are part of an office that had defended individuals who could be called in as witnesses during his trial. The next status hearing is set for August 15th.

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Just after 9:30 on Friday morning at New York's Eastern District court, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was quietly escorted into Judge Brian Cogan's courtroom. The diminutive kingpin wore a dark blue prison uniform with an orange shirt scrunched below the sleeves, his head shaved. He squared off to the courtroom, expressionless, before being seated with his legal team, but he seemed to soften slightly when he noticed Emma Coronel, his wife and a 27-year-old former beauty queen, sitting in the front row of the gallery with several other members of his family.

Guzman faced a table full across the courtroom: eight prosecutors from three different federal districts. This was his second court appearance since his extradition to the United States two weeks ago, and given his history of complex prison escapes, security was heightened. Attendees had to pass through two security checkpoints to enter the courtroom, heavily armed agents stood guard around the building, and a helicopter hovered overhead.

This was the first time that Guzman has been in front of Judge Cogan, a spectacled, grey-haired man who presided over the brief hearing with limited patience. A translator sat next to Guzman, murmuring quietly into his ear throughout the hearing, but never spoke on his behalf. The hearing was intended to determine the status of the case, and take the first steps toward scheduling the trial. It was our first real insight into his defense, and addressed sweeping issues that will define how the case moves forward. Here's what we learned:

His defense is questioning the legality of his extradition.
Guzman's court-appointed federal defenders, Michelle Gelernt and Michael Schneider, have requested that the U.S. Government produce Guzman's extradition paperwork. At the hearing, Gelernt argued that he was handed over to the U.S. based on cases built in California and Texas, rather than the case in New York. If this is true, it could be a violation of the international customs surrounding extradition, called the Doctrine of Specialty, and may drastically alter the course of this case. The prosecution, however, argues that Mexico waived Specialty in this case, but hasn't produced the paperwork yet. Judge Cogan put it plainly: if you can walk into a courthouse in Mexico and photocopy the documents, they have to turn them over to the defense. 

There's still a lot to be decided about his representation.
In an added twist to the case, the prosecution argued today that Guzman's lawyers could have a conflict of interest if they continue to represent him – but they've tied themselves in a knot. Their argument is based on the fact that the Federal Defenders Office in New York has defended at least five individuals who could be called as witnesses in Guzman's case. However, they have declined to allow Guzman to know the names of those witnesses – presumably for their safety. Judge Cogan believes that Guzman cannot "knowingly and voluntarily" waive the conflict of interest without fully understanding what their conflict is. "If you can't educate him" about his representation, the judge said, "I'm not gonna ask him to do that." A private attorney, Matthew Fishbein, has been appointed to provide additional counsel until this is sorted out. 

El Chapo's being held under intense security – and the court thinks that's appropriate
Guzman's defense attempted to argue that his conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan are too restrictive to allow them to effectively defend him. His conditions are severe: he's held in isolation for 23 hours a day, and allowed one hour of exercise; the facility requires that when he calls his attorneys, the legal team alerts the jail of everyone present on the call; he hasn’t been allowed to see his wife, or speak to his Mexican lawyers. So far, the prison has only allowed five people from the defenders' office to visit Guzman, and the parameters are strict. "When we go for a visit, we are not even allowed to bring Mr. Guzman water," Gelernt explained. 

Judge Cogan was not persuaded. "Based on what I know of this case," he said with a touch of humor, "there are grounds for taking additional security measures."

What's next for the case?
It's clear that they have a long road ahead. The defense has acknowledged that this is a "complex case," a legal classification that gives the court more leeway on the parameters for a speedy trial. When Judge Cogan asked the prosecution for a characterization of the discovery, they described tens of thousands of pages of documentation, and thousands of hours of wiretaps. In short, they explained, the discovery is "voluminous." But for now, as the two sides continue to spar over the preliminary procedure, he's headed back to Judge Cogan's courtroom on May 5th.