National News

El Chapo Trial: How Many Gory Details Can One Jury Take?

Posted December 6, 2018 4:32 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — In terms of bloodshed described in court, even the most violent Mafia cases have nothing on the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo.

In the first four weeks of testimony, witnesses have recounted bone-chilling stories about people being stabbed in the face, getting gunned down on their doorsteps and nearly having their heads blown off. But while at least two dozens murders have already been discussed, many more dark tales — and much more grisly evidence — have gone unheard by jurors.

Judge Brian M. Cogan, who is presiding over the trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, has kept a tight leash on the gore, attempting to balance what is necessary to convey the stark realities of Latin American drug cartels and what is — literally — overkill. Cogan seems to have taken the Goldilocks approach, looking for the spot between too much and not enough.

This week, however, his efforts were criticized by Guzmán’s lawyers as they began to cross-examine their client’s main cocaine supplier, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, an exceptionally violent man who, by his own admission, took part in at least 150 murders. When the lawyers asked Ramírez to describe some of these crimes, Cogan halted the line of inquiry.

“I am not understanding the relevance,” the judge confessed, noting he was concerned that the defense was “spending a lot of time” on Ramírez’s slew of executions. While he did not stop the questions altogether, he did encourage the lawyers to discriminate a bit.

“See if you cannot do 150 murders,” he suggested.

Cogan has been hesitant before about permitting graphic evidence. Before the trial, prosecutors said they planned to accuse Guzmán of personally killing or ordering the deaths of more than 30 people — among them, rivals, law enforcement officers and turncoats from within his organization. But at a pretrial hearing in October, Cogan said that number was “way too much” and “out of control.” He advised the government to sharply cut back.

“This is a drug conspiracy case that involves murders,” he explained. “I’m not going to let you try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs.”

Judges often limit prejudicial evidence. For their part, prosecutors are not supposed to inundate jurors with inflammatory testimony that could sway their feelings toward defendants. In a similar way, defense lawyers are expected to keep their questions on cross-examination focused on those that impeach a witness’s credibility.

Cogan has been similarly cautious in restricting testimony on high-level narco-corruption in Mexico. But Guzmán’s lawyers seemed especially displeased by his decisions this week regarding violence.

They complained that the rulings and suggestions have not only stopped them from thoroughly exploring the sadistic nature of the government’s witnesses, but have also sanitized the brutal violence for which drug cartels are known.

“Murder is an infamous act and infamous acts go right to the heart of someone’s credibility,” one of the lawyers, William Purpura, said in court of Ramírez. “We have a right to go over all of these bad acts to show what type of character this is.”

The government, however, has seemed happy to comply with the judge. On direct examination, prosecutors never asked Ramírez about any of the executions, leaving the defense to lead him through his lengthy list of victims.

Among them was an unnamed lawyer who was gunned down in a bookstore in Colombia after drunkenly discussing Ramírez’s business. There was also a certain Señor Canoso who was shot in the head after stealing $2 million of the cocaine supplier’s money.

Ramírez admitted to the defense that he even recorded the various expenses for his killings in scrupulous accounting ledgers. Some of the entries were exactingly precise. One listed a payment to a hit squad for $338,776.

It remains unclear how many more assassinations will be mentioned at the trial — and just how explicit the details will be. The government has not yet offered the evidence it has about the murder of Francisco Aceves Urías, a Guzmán gunman known as Barbarino, who was slain three years ago in a restaurant parking lot in Mexico. Nor has the jury heard about the two rival traffickers whom Guzmán is accused of doing away with after relaxing over lunch. Prosecutors claim that once the men were dead, he had their bodies tossed into a pit and set on fire.

But if Ramírez’s testimony is a guide, the government may fight to keep out any further graphic evidence.

On Tuesday, for example, Purpura showed the jury a photo he had found by plugging the words “150 people” into a Google image search. It was a visual aide, he claimed, designed to indicate just how large Ramírez’s group of victims really was.

The prosecutors objected to the photo, saying it was “overly prejudicial.” But Cogan let it in — given one condition.

He asked Purpura to be sure to tell the jury that the people in the picture had not in fact been killed.