Crime & Drugs

El Chapo will stand trial in 2018, and he’ll keep his public defenders

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was back in Brooklyn federal court Friday, and as the Sinaloa cartel kingpin learned, he’ll be returning often for at least the next year.

Judge Brian Cogan set a tentative trial date for the accused drug lord of April 16, 2018, and said the proceedings would likely last at least two or three months. Both prosecutors and Chapo’s attorneys seemed skeptical that the trial would actually begin on schedule, however, and even Cogan called the timeline “somewhat aspirational.”

“Let’s give it the old college try,” Cogan said. “If it has to slip, it slips.”

The trial decision capped an hourlong hearing in which Guzman spoke several times through a translator, discussing with the judge a potential conflict with his court-appointed attorneys, who are representing the purported billionaire because he claims he can’t afford to hire his own lawyers.

Guzman, 59, wore navy blue jail overalls. His hair had grown out from the buzz cut he’d sported in previous hearings, and his face was clean-shaven. He frequently glanced over at his former beauty queen wife, who was seated in the front row of the gallery.

Federal prosecutors have raised concerns that colleagues of Chapo’s public defenders have briefly represented four potential witnesses in the case, all of whom were convicted of smuggling cocaine or marijuana for the Sinaloa cartel. Two of the witnesses, who have not been publicly identified, claim to have met Chapo in person.

Cogan explained the situation to Guzman, noting that it could mean his public defenders would be unable to aggressively cross-examine the witnesses during a trial or use helpful information from the previous cases in his defense. He then asked whether Guzman understood. “Si, señor,” came the reply. Asked whether he’d like to have a new attorney appointed for him, Guzman said through his translator, “I thank you, sir, and I would like to continue with my current attorneys because I feel well with them.”

The law required Cogan to make Chapo explain the situation in his own words to prove his understanding, which created an awkward moment in the courtroom when Chapo repeated his previous answer nearly verbatim. Guzman eventually said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.”

His attorneys conferred with him for several minutes, whispering in Spanish. When the judge again addressed Chapo, asking him to confirm his comprehension, he said, “Yes, I understand very well.”

Unsatisfied with his response, the federal prosecutors asked the judge to make Chapo again prove his “sufficient understanding” of the legal proceedings. The judge, clearly losing his patience, again asked Chapo to explain the situation in his own words. After another conference with his attorneys, Guzman said, “I understand that my attorneys will be unable to use any private situation about these witnesses.”

Cogan said the problem appeared to be “a translation situation more than anything,” and said he’d felt comfortable that he had been able to “look the defendant in the eye and make a judgment that he understands what we’re talking about.”

The rest of the hearing dealt with concerns from Chapo’s lawyers that they couldn’t properly prepare for trial because of the strict visitation restrictions at the Manhattan jail where he’s being held in extreme solitary confinement. On Thursday, Cogan rejected a request to give Chapo more freedom but allowed the Sinaloa cartel boss to start exchanging letters with his wife. Guzman’s lawyers issued a statement that called the decision “devastating.”

In the hearing Friday, Chapo’s lawyers said that when they visit him in jail they are separated by a Plexiglas wall that makes it difficult to review court documents and recordings of evidence. With an estimated 10,000 pages to review, the attorneys called the situation “not feasible.”

“Are we supposed to sit there for hours at a time holding up documents?” attorney Michelle A. Gelernt asked, suggesting the restrictions violate Guzman’s Sixth Amendment right to be informed about the nature of the charges against him.

Federal prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg pointed out that Guzman has a special laptop that allows him to review documents, and said the Metropolitan Correctional Center “simply does not have the ability to accommodate” the defense team’s requests.

Cogan decided to appoint a magistrate judge to investigate the situation at the jail and report back, postponing a decision until a later date. He also declined to make an immediate decision about whether Chapo may have been improperly extradited from Mexico. He did decide, however, that FBI and DEA agents have the right to monitor the drug lord’s jail conversations and correspondence.

Chapo is due back in court for another hearing on Aug. 15. He faces an array of drug, conspiracy, and money-laundering charges, and will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole if he is convicted.

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