‘El Chapo’ Lawyers Protest Legal-Funding Obstacles

Criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman speaks to reporters on Aug. 14, 2017, after a hearing in New York federal court on Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (Adam Klasfeld, CNS)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Attorneys for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman failed to win a federal judge’s sympathy Monday in complaining about the prosecution’s effort to keep taxpayer-funded counsel off limits to the Sinaloa drug lord while also threatening to seize any money he would spend on a private defense team.

“I’m not going to pressure the government to make a carve-out for fees,” U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan ruled from the bench this morning.

“Sometimes it happens,” he added. “Sometimes it doesn’t.”

The carve-out would be for a slice of the $14 billion forfeiture that U.S. prosecutors hope to seize from what they claim to be the proceeds of Guzman’s drug empire, which they estimate stretched across four continents and includes a fleet of boats, planes and submarines.

Outside the courthouse, Guzman’s would-be attorneys told reporters at a press conference that the issue jeopardizes fundamental U.S. values of fair trials and right to counsel.

“When you’re a defense lawyer, you fully expect that it will be an uphill battle in every case, but we also expect fairness,” criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said. “This is still America, and we expect fairness. We expect that the man will be able to hire the counsel of his choice. We expect that the counsel of his choice will be allowed to come in, and actually start working on the case. I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

A pugnacious attorney and sometime radio talk-show host, Lichtman helped mobster John Gotti Jr. escape three murder-conspiracy charges and a $25 million securities fraud charge in 2005.

Guzman will need some strong legal firepower to parry the resources that the federal government is marshaling against him.

Referring to the prosecution table, Lichtman quipped: “There was enough for a minyan.”

In Jewish tradition, a minyan is a quorum of 10 adults needed for certain religious obligations.

Guzman meanwhile has representation from a handful of lawyers from the Federal Defenders of New York, including rising star Michelle Gelernt, who led a challenge in the same courthouse against President Donald Trump’s travel ban involving Muslim-majority countries.

Galernt blasted the prosecutors for their position on Guzman’s attorneys.

“We think it’s completely hypocritical of the government,” she said.

Judge Cogan’s ability to resolve the legal funding issue today had been constrained by a procedural thicket.

Lichtman’s legal team had not entered a notice of appearance with the court.

Cogan noted that this could have locked the attorneys into representing Guzman, regardless of whether they will be compensation.

“Once they’re in, they won’t get out easy,” he said.

The parties will meet again on Nov. 6, with trial currently slated for April 2018.

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