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Imprisoned drug kingpin El Chapo denied New York retrial

The Second Circuit found no error in how the potential for bias among jurors was handled at the cartel leader's early 2019 trial.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Information that could prejudice someone against El Chapo was deliberately kept from jurors when the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader went on trial. A federal appeals court refused Tuesday to order a new trial in the wake of allegations that at least a few members of the jury still read media reports on the withheld testimony. 

“Here, the unsworn, uncorroborated statements that one unidentified juror made to a magazine reporter do not constitute the ‘clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence’ requiring any juror inquiry beyond that already made,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote for a three-judge panel.

News of the misconduct broke days after a New York jury convicted El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, of conducting a continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking conspiracies, unlawful use of a firearm and money laundering conspiracy.

As reported in a Vice article, the strict rules established to see that El Chapo received a fair trial in Brooklyn "were routinely broken."

“We would constantly go to your media, your Twitter… I personally and some other jurors that I knew,” a juror told reporter Keegan Hamilton, who wrote that he recognized the juror from trial and quoted him anymously "for obvious reasons."

One bit of testimony that U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan had blocked jurors from hearing appears in a court filing — unsealed after closing arguments — wherein a witness testified that Guzmán used a “powdery substance” to drug and rape girls as young as 13. 

The witness quoted Guzmán, whom he claimed to have lived with for a time, as having called the girls “vitamins” because they gave him “life.”

But the juror interviewed by Vice said that five jurors and two alternates heard about the child rape allegations and, after briefly discussing what they had seen, they agreed not to tell the judge. The juror said the five-minute conversation didn’t factor into the verdict. 

Tuesday's ruling from the Second Circuit says Cogan properly investigated issues of bias before denying Guzmán’s request for a factual hearing on the juror’s report. The district judge canvassed the jury and talked to jurors individually about news articles they had seen; he spoke to two jurors who admitted they were exposed to extra-record information and decided they remained impartial. 

“The District Court did not exceed its discretion by refusing to bring the jury back to court to ask them the same questions again,” Circuit Judge Newman wrote in the 46-page ruling. 

Marc Fernich, Guzmán’s attorney, responded to the decision by pointing to the magnitude of the case and nature of his 64-year-old client’s celebrity.

“While respecting the court’s ruling, we’re disappointed that substantial allegations of grave jury misconduct continue to be swept under the rug and left wholly unexamined in a case of historic proportion — all, it appears, because of the defendant’s matchless notoriety,” Fernich told Courthouse News in an email. 

“None of the allegations in the VICE News article shows that any juror was not impartial, harbored bias against Guzman, or was otherwise unfit to serve.”

Fernich said during oral arguments in October that, in part because of “breathtaking jury misconduct,” Guzmán’s fate was sealed before deliberations began, setting a dangerous precedent for future high-profile prosecutions. 

Guzman was on trial for three months in the Eastern District of New York, and the juror who spoke to Vice said members of the panel became close, giving each other nicknames and imagining their own reality TV show. 

The apparently tight-knit jury convicted Guzmán on all counts. Cogan later sentenced Guzmán to life in prison plus 30 years.

Besides the juror misconduct, Guzmán’s team sought to overturn his conviction based on pretrial detention conditions at the now-shuttered Metropolitan Correctional Center — the same facility where Jeffrey Epstein died in August 2019 — saying the inhumane circumstances broke him physically and mentally so he couldn’t meaningfully participate in his own defense. 

Appellate judges pointed out during arguments that Guzmán met with his attorneys upwards of 20 hours per week. 

“The conditions of Guzman’s pretrial confinement, harsh as they were, do not provide a basis for disturbing his conviction,” the panel wrote, finding no Fifth or Sixth Amendment violations. 

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