A juror in the trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera admitted to extensive discussions among members of the Brooklyn federal court panel about social media coverage of the case, according to a news report Wednesday that could provide a basis for challenging last week’s verdict.
Keegan Hamilton, a reporter for Vice News who covered and tweeted extensively about the 2½-month trial, said a juror contacted him the day after Guzmán’s conviction and said: “You know how we were told we can’t look at the media during the trial? Well, we did.”
In the Vice story, the juror said “several people” followed the coverage on social media, and also talked about the case among themselves before the start of deliberations, which is prohibited so jurors don’t reach conclusions before the evidence is complete.
“The judge said, ‘You can’t talk about the case among each other,’ but we broke that rule a bunch of times,” said the juror, who was not named.
Guzmán, 61, the alleged leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, was convicted last Tuesday after six days of jury deliberation of smuggling an estimated $14 billion worth of cocaine and other drugs into the United States, following a trial in which prosecutors called 56 witnesses, including 14 informants.
Press and social media coverage of the trial included not only testimony and analysis from inside the courtroom, but also court papers revealing information not admitted into evidence — such as a government witness’s claim that Guzmán paid for sex with 13-year-old girls.
The juror told Vice that five jurors and two alternates had heard about those allegations, and they saw tweets saying U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan planned to ask them whether they had been exposed to publicity about the sex with minors after it came out in news reports.
“I had told them if you saw what happened in the news, just make sure that the judge is coming in and he’s gonna ask us, so keep a straight face. So he did indeed come to our room and ask us if we knew, and we all denied it, obviously,” said the juror.
The juror also told Vice he didn’t think the allegation factored into the verdict — “It was just like a five-minute talk” — and said jurors lied to Cogan because they were afraid they’d get into trouble.
“I thought we would get arrested,” the juror said, according to Vice. “I thought they were going to hold me in contempt. . . . I didn’t want to say anything or rat out my fellow jurors. I didn’t want to be that person. I just kept it to myself, and I just kept on looking at your Twitter feed.”
The revelations alarmed Guzmán’s lawyers, who could seek a hearing from Cogan. "Obviously we're deeply concerned that the jury may have utterly ignored the judge's daily admonitions against reviewing the unprecedented press in the case,” said defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman.
“More disturbing is the revelation that the jury may have lied to the court about having seen some deeply prejudicial, uncorroborated and inadmissible allegations against Mr. Guzmán on the eve of jury deliberations,” he added. “Above all, Joaquín Guzmán deserved a fair trial."
A spokesman for the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment, but some legal experts cautioned that, on its own, a news story about statements from an unnamed juror was not enough to force a retrial, or even to require Cogan to convene a hearing or talk to jurors.
Fordham Law School criminal-law professor James Cohen said the defense might try to confirm the story with investigators, but if jurors are confronted with the claims and uniformly deny them, the judge’s hands will be tied. “He can’t do anything if all the jurors keep silent,” Cohen said.
The jury was anonymous. The Vice story did not disclose the identity, gender or status — alternate, or one of the first 12 — of the juror who spoke, but Hamilton said that in a videoconferenced interview he recognized the juror who spoke from the trial.
The juror also told Vice the verdict took six days to reach because one female juror was a holdout who vacillated from day to day. Several on the panel sympathized with Guzmán, the juror told Vice, and were concerned he was likely to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
“A lot of people were having difficulty thinking about him being in solitary confinement because, well, you know, we’re all human beings, people make mistakes, et cetera,” the juror reportedly said.
Guzmán faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for June 25.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect date for Guzmán's sentencing.