The trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman got off to a dramatic start Monday as an eager coterie of would-be jurors — among them a professional Michael Jackson impersonator — was ushered inside a federal courthouse in Brooklyn to audition for 12 of the most prestigious roles in town.
“No moonwalking,” Judge Brian Cogan warned the hopeful, who was among the first to be questioned during voir dire.
Only 100 of the 920 New Yorkers who returned the court’s 35-page questionnaires were still in the running by the first day of jury selection, which saw the leafy blocks around the courthouse for the Eastern District of New York ringed with New York Police Department patrol cars and armed guards standing sentinel in a stinging autumn rain. U.S. marshals in T-shirts roamed the halls of the courthouse with eager K-9s on leashes and Glock pistols holstered at their hips.
Guzman dressed up for the occasion, appearing in a blue suit and a white shirt with Studio 54-sized lapels, unbuttoned to mid-chest. He took notes and shuffled papers as the judge questioned the first 20 potential jurors just a few feet away.
He has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations.
Unlike most Americans who get called for jury duty, those interviewed Monday seemed genuinely eager to serve. Guzman will join the ranks of mobsters John Gotti and Vincent Basciano, whose career-ending appearances in the Eastern District courthouse each brought in more than 1,000 potential jurors. Those men were tried on home turf, while Guzman was extradited from Mexico in 2017. But the face of the ruthless Sinaloa cartel heads to court the subject of a prestige podcast and a popular crime drama, which Cogan said could muddy the jury pool.
One man was struck for cause after admitting he’d Googled the name on his jury questionnaire and read Guzman’s Wikipedia page, which calls the defendant the "most powerful drug trafficker in the world." Another said she’d tried the defendant’s eponymous Netflix series, now in its second season, but didn’t watch it because “it was kind of boring.” She insisted knowing about the show wouldn’t color her judgment, since “everyone has a show about them.”
“I’m waiting for my Netflix show,” Cogan joked.
So who will make the cut? If questions from the 118-item juror survey are any indication, fans of Vice News and the chatty true crime podcast “My Favorite Murder” are probably already out. So is anyone bold enough to acknowledge “personal views about people of Mexican descent” that would prevent them from being impartial. Attorneys on both sides focused on those who said they supported legalizing marijuana, as well as Spanish-speakers and people with strong feelings about police and cooperating witnesses.
A young woman who said she watched the Netflix show “Narcos” was axed after she told the judge she might see images of the drama in her head and think of Guzman.
Another was cut after saying she was too scared to serve. “What scares me is that I read his family will come after jurors and their families,” she said. “I feel unsafe.”
But attorneys kept on an immigrant who said he grew up in Medellin when the city was Colombia’s cocaine capital.
“When I was still young there was a lot of terrorism going around my city,” the potential juror said, adding that his father adores so-called narconovelas — soap operas that dramatize the lives of drug traffickers. But he called those shows “fantasies” and said they wouldn’t influence his ability to be fair.
A woman in her late 20s with long brown hair and a poncho-style cape was asked about Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” after indicating it was her favorite book. Another shared a beloved thriller with the judge.
The greatest burden for prospective jurors may not be Guzman’s notoriety, but the trial’s extraordinary length. Cogan warned that the 12 jurors and six alternates could be seated for as long as 12 weeks, which will eliminate many who would otherwise be qualified to serve. Most of those struck for cause Monday told the court that serving would be a hardship.
At day’s end, 46 prospective jurors had been questioned and 17 dismissed.
“You’ve got to find somebody who’s got nothing to do for four months,”said Matthew Galluzzo, a former New York City prosecutor and practicing defense attorney. “You might be talking about a lot of retirees.”
A more uniform crowd could bode well for U.S. attorneys, who rely on good group dynamics to secure a conviction, the former prosecutor said. Their ideal jury would be made up of men and women who are both agreeable and civic-minded.
Jurors interviewed in the morning trended much younger, with a few in their 20s and the majority approaching middle age. A younger jury won’t necessarily help the defense, but certain personalities might, Galluzzo said. Defense attorneys tend to want one of three things: someone too timid to convict, too overwhelmed to follow the case, or a juror who holds his opinion like a grudge.
“For a defense, a hung jury is a win,” Galluzzo said. “They’re looking for contrarians who will disagree for the sake of disagreeing, take a position and never change their minds. I’m always looking for a few folks to cause chaos in the jury room.”
Sharp is a special correspondent.