BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Saying that the drug lord’s Brooklyn trial three months from now will unnecessarily feed a public spectacle, attorneys for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman fought Tuesday to have the case moved.
Already convicted of murder and drug trafficking decades earlier in Mexico, Guzman has spent the last year and a half in New York awaiting trial on U.S. charges that could put him away for life. Wearing navy prison scrubs for today’s hearing, Guzman waved to his wife and young daughters as he entered and exited the courtroom.
The 61-year-old is awaiting trial in solitary confinement, in the most secure wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, having escaped custody twice before while serving his sentence in Mexico.
Defense counsel A. Eduardo Balarezo emphasized in a May change-of-venue motion, however, that the MCC is just 200 feet away from the Manhattan federal courthouse.
Rather than parading Guzman between boroughs, the defense says it would reduce the risk of tainting the jury pool to hold Guzman’s trial in Manhattan as well. Balarezo’s co-counsel, William Purpura, noted Tuesday that Guzman’s trial is expected to last four months, and that jurors are bound to catch wind of the Brooklyn Bridge being repeatedly closed to traffic for his transport.
“We all know what happened with Chris Christie when a lane closed down on another bridge,” Purpura said, referring to enormous backlash against the former governor of New Jersey for his 2013 Bridgegate scandal.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan dead-panned, drawing an appreciative chuckle from the full courtroom.
Tuesday’s hearing also saw Balarezo revisiting his claim that the government has approximately 41 pieces of potentially exculpatory discovery.
Among other things, Balarezo has said there is evidence to suggest that Guzman was not a leader of the Sinaloa cartel or a trafficking kingpin but rather a mid-ranked player who worked under others. But the government’s production on this issue is so vague, Balarezo argued in prior court filings, that his team cannot use it “because of the utter lack of specificity.”
“If we prove or show Mr. Guzman was not a leader of the Sinaloa cartel or another drug trafficking organization, maybe that would get him acquitted of the CCE,” Balarezo said in court Tuesday, referring to the first count in the indictment, which puts Guzman at the head of a continuing criminal enterprise.
“All we’re asking is for Mr. Guzman to have the ability to fairly defend himself,” Balarezo added.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldberg responded the prosecution’s only burden was to prove Guzman supervised five or more people — that he was a leader, not the leader, of the trafficking group.
Guzman has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Balarezo pushed back against the government’s position outside the hearing Tuesday. “The government is making a mockery of the system,” Balarezo said. “The government has information that [Guzman] was not [in a leadership position].”
After the defendant’s last court appearance in April, Guzman’s wife told journalists outside that she was worried about his declining health. Attorneys for Guzman have also emphasized the defendant’s memory and affect have deteriorated.
Cogan agreed Tuesday that Balarezo can have a psychiatrist evaluate Guzman and possibly adjust some of his medication dosages.
If Guzman’s trial is to move to the Southern District in Manhattan, Cogan could still preside. The jury pool may still come from the Eastern District, which includes all of Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
Guzman’s next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 14.
On June 11, an alleged co-conspirator of Guzman’s was sentenced in Atlanta to nearly 50 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $192 million. Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also known as “La Barbie,” was born in Texas and became a leader of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) while it was allied with Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel.
Charged with running a multibillion drug empire, Guzman faces 17 counts of conspiracy, criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, money laundering and other charges in a sweeping 2009 indictment by U.S. prosecutors. During his reign over the Sinaloa cartel, prosecutors say, Guzman “employed ‘sicarios,’ or hitmen, who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of violence for a variety of reasons.” Some of the cocaine was distributed in New York’s Eastern District, according to the indictment.