National News

El Chapo Jurors Will Be Anonymous During Trial

Posted February 6, 2018 4:34 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — In a rare but not surprising move, a federal judge in Brooklyn has ruled that when Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, goes on trial in September, the case will be heard by an anonymous and partly sequestered jury.

In an order issued Monday night, the judge, Brian M. Cogan, said that Guzmán’s “history of violence” warranted keeping secret the jurors’ names, work places and addresses throughout what is likely to be a three- or four-month trial. Cogan also ruled that the jurors should be driven to and from their homes to U.S. District Court in Brooklyn by armed federal marshals. He added that he will tell the jurors the restrictions were being put in place “to protect their privacy and to ensure that the trial proceeds expeditiously.”

The use of anonymous juries has long been controversial because it can erode the presumption of innocence and prejudice jurors against a defendant before they have a chance to consider any evidence. Although Guzmán, the reputed former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, has not been charged directly with any violent crimes, the government has claimed, in public documents and several secret filings, that he once maintained an army of assassins who carried out hundreds of murders, assaults and kidnappings on his behalf — some of them to silence potential witnesses, others to take revenge against those who had betrayed him.

In his order, Cogan suggested that Guzmán’s “associates and allies” may not be exclusively in Mexico, noting that shortly after his extradition in January 2017, a group of prisoners in California posted a video on the internet pledging to serve as his “hit men” and to help him escape. Though Guzmán’s lawyer has called the video “nothing short of a bad joke,” the prisoners in it can be heard to say: “If El Señor asks us to free him, we are going to take him out immediately.”

The first anonymous jury in the United States was empaneled in New York in 1977 at the trial of the Harlem drug kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. In imposing the secrecy restrictions, the judge in the case, Henry F. Werker, cited “the sordid history” of jury tampering in drug prosecutions in the city and said that “all safety measures possible should be taken for the protection of prospective jurors.”

Anonymous juries have also heard the trials of John J. Gotti, the former Gambino family don, and, more recently, those of a police officer charged in Baltimore in the death of Freddie Gray and George Zimmerman, who was accused in Florida of killing Trayvon Martin.

Cogan’s ruling is the latest in a string of legal losses for Guzmán who, aside from criminal charges, is also facing a $14 billion forfeiture claim. In the last several months, he has tried unsuccessfully to challenge his extradition and to lighten his severe conditions of confinement at Manhattan’s federal jail.

In an email on Tuesday, Guzman’s lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, quoted one of his court documents saying that an anonymous jury would prejudice the panel against him and create an “unfair impression that he is a dangerous person.”

“All he wants,” Balarezo added, “is a fair trial.”