Secrecy Reigns in Sentence Appeal of El Chapo-Tied Trafficker

WASHINGTON (CN) — Taking up the sentence of a trafficker linked to the cartel of imprisoned drug lord El Chapo, the D.C. Circuit heard arguments Thursday in a case otherwise sealed off from the public.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison last year for his role leading the Sinaloa cartel, ranked by U.S. authorities as one of the largest drug-trafficking operations in the world.

A car hit by bullets seen in Culiacan, Mexico, on Oct. 17, 2019, following an intense gun battle in the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state. (AP Photo/Hector Parra)

But while the cartel kingpin’s exploits are widely known, the man appealing Thursday remained unnamed in oral arguments. Every entry in the case docket, which is linked to one in U.S. District Court with three convicted drug traffickers associated with El Chapo, is sealed to public.

In a procedural blunder at this morning’s hearing, amicus attorney Lauren Hartz started to refer to the trafficker by name but cut herself off at the surname, going on to refer to him as “the appellant” per instructions from the three-judge panel.

The courtroom was nearly empty as Washington, D.C., rapidly works to respond to the spread of coronavirus, with several members of Congress self-quarantining and shutting down their offices on Capitol Hill.

But U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland vigorously engaged in the arguments on whether the lower court should consider reducing the appellant’s sentence after a retroactive amendment to the sentencing guidelines.

The Clinton appointee questioned how the appeal could stand when the appellant claimed at trial to have no involvement in the transportation of more than 2,000 kilograms of cocaine.

“You’re either responsible for these shiploads or you’re not,” Garland said. “It’s all or nothing.”

The appeal rests heavily on whether the trafficker was convicted of carrying a quantity of cocaine that, under the amended guidelines, would reduce the 2018 sentence.

With Garland warning Hartz that the trafficker risks perjuring himself, the Jenner Block associate reminded the judge that, as an amicus attorney, the appellant is not her client and she had not spoken with him.

Hartz argued that if the circuit remands the sentence to the District Court, the appellant could then argue that he was only partially or in no way responsible for the shiploads.

Claiming there was no evidence in the two-week trial as to the quantity of drugs the appellant transported, the court-appointed attorney suggested a “straightforward” remand proceeding with briefing and a hearing in the district court.

“It recognizes we have to balance finality with fairness,” Hartz argued.

But Justice Department attorney Michael Rotker said the appellant was found guilty of transporting at least 2,200 to 2,300 kilograms of cocaine, an amount that “far exceeds” the sentencing threshold of 150kg to 450kg.

“Quantity was front and center here,” Rotker repeatedly said.

Arguing the sentence reductions cited by the amicus attorney differed from the case now on appeal, Rotker said: “The remand that the amicus was advocating for sounds much more open ended.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers questioned Rotker on whether it is “totally impossible to conceive” a situation where, in the years since the trafficker was sentenced, a witness may now be able to come forward with new evidence.

But the Clinton appointee followed up voicing concerns that the circuit panel had little to go off in deciding whether to grant the appeal. “We have nothing,” Rogers said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, a Trump appointee, joined the two Clinton appointees on the panel.

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