The difficulty of picking a jury for a high-profile, politically sensitive criminal trial was never more apparent Tuesday than in the case of accused Mexican cocaine kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera in Brooklyn federal court.
The day began with one potential juror being excused after asking a court security officer if he could get the defendant’s autograph. By the end of the day, jurors with opposing views on immigration and other issues that may come up in the trial remained in the pool.
And at one point, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan endured one potential juror who admitted reading news reports about the case aloud to others in the jury room — a cardinal sin for jurors, who are supposed to learn everything about a case only from testimony and evidence.
Guzman, extradited from Mexico last year, is charged with running the Sinaloa Cartel, a violent criminal organization that authorities say is responsible for smuggling an estimated $14 billion in drugs into the United States.
One potential juror told Cogan she had heard about the case because “there was someone reading it in the jury room right now.”
Cogan, visibly shocked, said: “Reading it aloud?”
“Yes,” she responded, and defense attorney A. Eduardo Balarezo’s head fell into his hands.
The very next potential juror, who said she was homeless and afraid of the internet, admitted she’d been the one reading the paper aloud in the jury room. The woman apologized when told what she did was wrong, and was excused from the panel.
Another man, originally from Medellin, Colombia, was excused after he asked for Guzman’s autograph.
“I’m a bit of a fan,” the man told Cogan, who is keeping the identities of all prospective jurors secret and has allowed only five press pool reporters to watch questioning.
Guzman, according to the pool report, just stared at the man, but defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman argued he should not be removed from the panel just for wanting his client’s autograph.
“Judge I have the autograph of Charles Manson, and the two leaders of Hamas, and obviously I’m not a big fan of them,” Lichtman said. “He may just be interested in the autographs of infamous people, like me.”
Also dismissed Tuesday was a candidate who on Monday discussed a sandwich available at his local deli called the “El Chapo,” because he became concerned overnight his discussion of the sandwich might make him identifiable.
Another potential juror had a panic attack while waiting in the jury room and was both hospitalized and excused from serving.
Remaining on the panel were a supporter of President Donald Trump who said he could be open-minded about Guzman, another man who said he “would be waiting to convict” anyone involved with a drug cartel but could keep an open mind, and a man who supports Democrat Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — the heavy favorite to be the next House member representing the Bronx — and her vow to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but said he would credit ICE agents’ testimony like anyone else’s.
To the man who said he wanted to convict anyone connected with a drug cartel, Cogan emphasized that it wasn’t enough to “try” to be fair.
“As Yoda says, to paraphrase Yoda [from the Star Wars movies], there is no try — you do or don’t do,” Cogan said.
Cogan expects to complete jury selection this week, and has scheduled opening statements in the estimated four-month trial for Nov. 13.