Inside the El Chapo Trial Jury Selection
Judge Brian M. Cogan had what he called an “open rebellion” on his hands Wednesday morning when, after announcing the selection of a jury in the trial of Joaquin Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, one juror broke down crying, begging to be taken off the jury.
The woman told Cogan that, two days into the selection process, her coworkers had already deduced that she was in the pool of about 100 people drawn from Brooklyn, Long Island and Staten Island as potential jurors in the case. Who else might be able to identify her?
Earlier in the week, others had been dismissed after expressing fear of being identified, but now, with the jury selected, Cogan decided that letting one juror beg off would give the wrong idea.
Jeffrey Lichtman, another defense attorney for El Chapo, agreed. “My concern is that if one gets off with a few tears, we’re going to have a trail of tears,” he said.
Guzmán’s trial is set to start on Tuesday, November 13th. But first, Cogan, along with the defense and prosecution teams, had to wade through a pool of about potential jurors to find 12 people capable of judging the case on its own merits, free of bias.
El Chapo has pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment accusing him of running an international drug-trafficking conspiracy, including charges of illegal and deadly gunplay, and money laundering. If convicted, he faces life in prison. Guzmán, 61, stands accused of being the all-powerful don of the ruthless Sinaloa Cartel, which for decades funneled hundreds of thousands of tons of cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and marijuana into the United States, while ruling Guzmán’s stronghold in the Sierra Madre mountains like a paralel state, with paramilitary forces at his beck and call and cops, judges and politicians on his payroll.
Guzmán is not technically charged with murder, but prosecutors have said they intend to tie him to more than 30 homicides — so potential jurors are not wrong to feel jittery about the weeks and months ahead, even if Guzmán’s lawyers have kindly promised that their client will not murder anyone. Each juror is now under the protection of the United States Marshals service, whose agents will be shuttling them between their homes and the courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn every day for the duration of the trial.
The jury was finalized Wednesday morning, with seven women and five men, along with six alternate jurors — four women and two men — selected to spend the next three to four months hearing testimony regarding the most minute details of El Chapo’s alleged crimes. It’s a diverse crowd, with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, including at least three immigrants and four Spanish speakers, ranging from native fluency to a juror who said she used to converse with a “Mexican gentleman who lived with me.”
By and large, the jurors professed liberal views on drugs, with several telling the judge that they support legalization and regulation of marijuana, but that it would not sway them in considering the evidence against Guzmán. Others have relatives in law enforcement, including one woman with a brother in the Department of Homeland Security stationed in a Texas border town, and another brother who is a helicopter pilot for DHS.
Speaking with reporters outside the courtroom, one of Guzmán’s defense attorneys, Eduardo Balarezo, said he was pleased with the men and women chosen to pass judgement on the alleged crimes of his client.
“We trust they will do their duty,” Balarezo said.
In an effort to protect the anonymity of jurors, Judge Brian M. Cogan held the selection process in an empty courtroom, open only to the prosecutors, the defense team, El Chapo, and a pool of five reporters perched in the jury box, making the affair unusually intimate. Cogan sat perched at the head of a table flanked on each side by the defense and prosecution teams, while El Chapo sat on the far end, with his interpreter.
One by one, the potential jurors sat to Cogan’s left, and, sitting just feet from Guzmán, answered questions designed to weed out anyone whose biases against or knowledge of El Chapo might make them unable to fairly judge the merits of the case. The would-be jurors were quizzed on their feelings about drugs, their family connections to law enforcement, and whether they feared being tasked with the potential wrath of the cartel.
Throughout the proceedings, El Chapo paid some attention to the potential jurors, occasionally laughing at an answer, but didn’t stare them down. For the most part he sat still, focusing on his interpreter.
Among the first group questioned on Monday was a man sporting a ponytail, the professional Michael Jackson impersonator, a revelation that prompted a cheerful outburst from Balarezo, the defense attorney.
“Show us the moonwalk!” joked Balarezo
The ersatz King of Pop was not dismissed that day, but Cogan let him go on Tuesday after his unique job caught the attention of the press, and prosecutors expressed concern that he would be too easy to identify.
One woman, who had requested a private discussion with Cogan, broke down in tears, Cogan said, telling the judge that while she did not fear the wrath of Guzmán’s sicarios, she feared that the worry would weigh heavily on her mother, who had fretted Monday night that they would be forced to sell their home and move in order to stay safe. This prompted a hearty laugh from Guzmán, but Cogan took the woman’s concern seriously and sent her home.
Another woman was sent home after she confessed she had googled Guzmán’s name alongside “kill jurors,” and found an article in which El Chapo’s lawyers had pledged that no juror killing would take place. She was not reassured.
“Even that statement made me nervous,” she said. Cogan let her go.
One young man with long, damp hair and red eyes told the judge he knew of Guzmán thanks in part to his local deli, which has an “El Chapo” sandwich consisting of a bagel with capers, cream cheese and lox, which he described as “delicious.” The man survived the first day of selection, but came in the next day concerned that he and his deli could be identified by the sandwich. Cogan sent him home.
On Tuesday, a member of the jury pool had a panic attack in the waiting room, and had to be sent to the hospital in an ambulance.
Another man questioned on Monday was from Medellín, Colombia, home of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. He made it to Tuesday as well, until a court security officer notified the judge that the man had asked about the possibility of getting an autograph from El Chapo. This raised concern from prosecutors, while Lichtman, the defense attorney, argued that simply wanting an autograph shouldn’t be grounds for dismissal.
“I have the autograph of Charles Manson and the two leaders of Hamas, and I’m obviously not a big fan of them,” he said. “He may just be interested in the autographs of famous people.”
The man from Medellín admitted, however, that he was “a bit of a fan” of Guzmán, and Cogan sent him home.
Not everyone’s biases were grounds for immediate dismissal. In one instance Tuesday afternoon, Cogan queried an older white man who on his questionnaire had replied that he would vote to convict in any case involving a cartel, describing drug traffickers as “an evil bunch.” As with others who had made clear their personal feelings about aspects of the case, Cogan asked the man if he might be able to lay aside his feelings and approach the trial impartially. The man said he could try.
Cogan, who kept disciplined control of the process, gave the man a nerdy nudge. “To paraphrase Yoda, there is no try, you do or don’t do,” Cogan said.
The older juror was not among those eventually selected.
The jury selection lurched forward, and by Tuesday evening, the prosecution and defense teams had largely made their choices about who to cut. On Wednesday, the decision was made all but final — the jurors are empaneled, but Cogan will not swear them in until the beginning of trial next week.
One juror, an African-American man in his thirties, had said on an initial questionnaire that he was a supporter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected Congresswoman from the Bronx who has vocally advocated the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the juror made it onto the panel after he told the judge that his politics would not affect his view of the trial testimony of law enforcement, which is expected to include agents from ICE.
All but one juror, a middle-aged woman who emigrated from Ethiopia decades ago, said they knew some information about El Chapo. One woman said she had begun watching a Netflix series about Guzmán, but had found it boring. Another woman said she had watched the series Narcos — which in its first three seasons stays largely in Colombia and does not feature El Chapo — but her main takeaway was that the main DEA agent was “hot.” (It was unclear if she referred to Agent Murphy, the towheaded lead played by Boyd Holbrook, from the first two seasons, or his world-weary partner Agent Peña, played by Pedro Pascal, who starred in the third season.)
On Wednesday afternoon, officially under partial sequestration and protected by U.S. Marshals, the jurors headed home for some rest before the start of the trial next week, with a final reminder from Cogan.
“Talk about the weather, the elections; maybe not the elections,” Cogan said. “But not anything about this case. I’ll see you back here on Tuesday for what I believe will be a very interesting experience for all of you.”
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