A jury was selected Wednesday for the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, capping a brief but tumultuous selection process that sparked excitement and fear among those interviewed to serve.
With the exception of one woman, who pleaded to be released from the jury pool in what Federal Judge Brian Cogan termed an “open rebellion” and left the courtroom in tears, those chosen reacted with reserve. The diverse jury includes several Spanish speakers, a handful of immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe and South Asia, and at least four people with personal connections to law enforcement. Almost all said they favored more liberal drug enforcement policy, and most said they had watched at least a bit of either “Narcos” or “El Chapo” on Netflix. One claimed never to have heard of Guzman, while the rest said they were only vaguely aware of him.
It was a departure from the preceding days of the selection process, in which more than 70 potential jurors were interviewed and expressed emotions ranging from enthusiasm to terror. One contender was rushed to the hospital early Tuesday after suffering a panic attack in the jury room. Another fidgeted with evident distress in the gallery, bursting into extensive tears in a private audience with Cogan. A third was eliminated for cause after she told the court, “I looked up his name and ‘kill juror’” online, and said Guzman’s promise not to target jurors “made me anxious.”
According to the court, those fears were not without merit. In February, Cogan ordered unusual and extensive steps to secure juror safety, including anonymity and daily private escorts to and from the Eastern District of New York courthouse by armed U.S. Marshals.
“Defendant’s history of violence alone — violence done at his direction or on his behalf — would be sufficient to warrant an anonymous and partially sequestered jury,” Cogan wrote in his Feb. 5 ruling. “That many of the allegations involve murder, assault, kidnapping or torture of potential witnesses or those suspected of assisting law enforcement make the Government’s concerns particularly salient.”
Even if hit men never came for the jury, publicity could “expose them to intimidation by defendants’ friends or enemies, or harassment by the public,” the ruling warned.
Those concerns swayed some early contenders, including a man who’d told the court Monday that he enjoyed an “El Chapo” sandwich at his local deli, only to agonize on Tuesday that the detail would identify him to the cashier. A Michael Jackson impersonator who’d been eager to serve got the ax over worries his occupation could out him.
All told, 34 of thepotential jurors interviewed during voir dire were stricken for cause, many because they said they or their families were afraid. Others told the judge they couldn’t miss work, that they’d never trust witnesses cooperating with prosecutors, or that they already knew too much about the defendant to give him a fair hearing.
There was even a man cut for being starstruck.
That hopeful, an immigrant from Medellin, Colombia, who’d grown up amidst drug violence, got caught asking a court officer to get him Guzman’s autograph.
“I’m a bit of a fan,” he admitted, drawing a grin from the defendant and the boot from the judge.
Others were less impressed by the cartel boss, who has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations after being extradited to the U.S. in 2017.
“They’re an evil bunch — I would be weighted to convict,” an older white man told the judge. When Cogan pressed him on whether he could be impartial, the man promised to try.
“To paraphrase Yoda, there is no try,” Cogan replied. That man agreed to keep an open mind, but was axed during peremptory strikes.
While lawyers deliberated over which jurors to exclude, defense attorney Mariel Colon petitioned the court to allow her client a brief embrace with his wife just before opening statements on Tuesday. Cogan did not immediately say whether he would honor the request.
Among those who will determine Guzman’s ultimate fate are a man with a son in the NYPD, a woman whose son had struggled with drugs, a Department of Corrections retiree and a young woman who called the “El Chapo” Netflix series “kind of boring.”
Alternates included a booster of Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who supports her calls to abolish ICE but said that wouldn’t color his view of testimony from Homeland Security, and a woman who had two brothers in the department and who called its agents “very credible witnesses.”
The impaneled jurors left court Wednesday morning with an escort from federal marshals, though Cogan decided not to officially swear them in until the trial formally begins Tuesday morning.
“I will see you then for what I believe will be a very interesting experience for all of you,” the judge said.
Sharp is a special correspondent.