Jury selection in the drug conspiracy trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was completed Wednesday, with the reputed kingpin awaiting a federal judge’s decision on whether he can briefly embrace his former beauty queen wife before opening statements next week.
The anonymous and partly sequestered jury of five men and seven women, plus six alternates, was selected over 2½ days in US District Court in Brooklyn.
The panel of New Yorkers – which includes several immigrants, Spanish speakers and people with relatives in law enforcement – were handpicked during a sometimes colorful voire dire process that saw one prospective juror dismissed after asking a court officer for help getting the autograph of the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
“I’m a bit of fan,” the man told the judge.
Another potential juror was dismissed after revealing that he frequently ordered a bagel sandwich named for “El Chapo” at a local deli. Others were tossed because they said they feared for their safety. A full-time Michael Jackson impersonator was let go because it was feared he could be identified through his job.
The men and women who will decide the fate of a defendant once considered the world’s most powerful and ruthless drug trafficker will hear opening statements on Tuesday. Before then, however, a member of Guzman’s defense team wrote a letter asking US District Court Judge Brian Cogan to allow Guzman to give his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, a brief hug.
“Mr. Guzmán has not been permitted to have any contact with his wife either by telephone or in person,” attorney Mariel Colon Miro wrote the court, noting that her client has been kept in solitary confinement in a small windowless cell for 23 hours most days.
She added, “In the interest of Mr. Guzmán’s mental health and in the interest of justice, it is respectfully requested that the petition for a humanitarian gesture to Mr. Guzmán be granted.”
The judge has not decided on whether to allow Guzman the first hug with his wife in nearly two years.
The 61-year-old Guzman has pleaded not guilty. If convicted of international drug trafficking, conspiring to kill rivals, gun charges and money laundering, he faces a sentence of life in prison.
Given Guzman’s violent history, Cogan has ordered the jury be anonymous and partly sequestered. The names, addresses and places of employment of prospective jurors will be kept secret for the duration of a trial that could last four months.
Jurors will be transported to and from the courthouse by armed US marshals.
The prosecution will be an enormous undertaking. The international scope of an alleged criminal enterprise that spanned continents “makes it an outlier among even the biggest drug prosecutions to date,” Cogan wrote last week.
Guzman’s defense team has also complained it has not had enough time to go over the voluminous evidence being presented against their client, including more than 100,000 audio recordings and recently received binders with 14,000 pages of new documents.
Under heavy security, prospective jurors came face to face with Guzman in court, though the judge instructed them not to look at him. They were asked about their views on the legalization of narcotics as well as their experiences with substance abuse and violent crime.
Guzman, also known for his dramatic prison escapes in Mexico, was extradited to the United States in January 2017.
Almost all the selected jurors said they had heard of Guzman but could still be impartial. One juror, a middle aged woman who is a native Spanish speaker, was in tears after being selected.
“Our concern is that if one gets off with a few tears, we’re going to have a trail of tears,” defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said.