Fake news, Michael Jackson, and legal weed: Inside El Chapo’s jury selection

We were in the room as the 12 jurors were selected. It was weird, in a very Brooklyn way.
November 8, 2018, 2:59pm
Fake news, Michael Jackson, and legal weed: Inside El Chapo’s jury selection

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Maybe it was the Michael Jackson impersonator. Maybe it was the first encounter with a burly, bearded courtroom security guard who looked like Conor McGregor. Or maybe it was when somebody asked to get an autograph from the defendant, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it became clear that jury selection in the trial of the world’s most notorious drug lord had turned into a circus.

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El Chapo’s trial officially began Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, and the first order of business was to find 12 jurors who would be willing to sit through a high-profile trial could last up to four months. In exchange for around $50 a day, the jurors would be asked to make a decision about the guilt or innocence of a cartel leader accused of ordering dozens of killings.

Earlier this year, Cogan ruled that jurors in El Chapo’s trial would remain anonymous due to concerns about their safety. The court sent out a 42-page questionnaire to 1,000 prospective jurors in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island. Based on the responses, the defense and prosecution selected around 100 suitable candidates. They ended up interviewing 74 of those people before selecting the final dozen, plus six alternates.

Read: Here's the most damning evidence against El Chapo.

Citing fears about whether prospective jurors would honestly answer sensitive questions in open court, Judge Brian Cogan limited media access to the proceeding to just five pool reporters. VICE News was one of three media outlets that had formally urged Cogan to err on the side of transparency, and I was among the handful of reporters allowed inside the courtroom for all three days of the jury selection process. This is what transpired.

The jurors were summoned into the courtroom in groups of 20, with assigned numbers that would be used to identify them affixed to their chests in place of nametags. Cogan gave each batch the same spiel. He told them the anonymity was to protect their privacy, and that they would be escorted to the court each day by U.S. Marshals as a matter of convenience. “Think of all the money you’ll save on taxi and subway fares,” he said. In an effort to keep the jurors impartial, the judge mentioned nothing about fears they could be threatened or even murdered by the cartel.

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After Cogan’s introduction, which included a stern reminder that the defendant should be considered innocent until proven guilty, the jurors were sent back into a private room and called in one by one for interviews. Cogan sat at the head of a table in the courtroom, across from the juror who was being questioned. Three lawyers each for the prosecution and government sat next to them, on opposite sides of the table. The five members of the press sat in the jury box.

Listen to Episode 1 of "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial":

El Chapo was seated next to his lawyers at the table, within spitting distance of the prospective jurors while they were being interviewed. He was not shackled, and on the first day he wore a navy suit with a crisp white shirt underneath. The shirt had a very broad collar, and he wore it unbuttoned down to his sternum, like a character from “Miami Vice.” The second day, he sported a more buttoned-down look: a black suit with a blue shirt and check-pattern tie. He was clean-shaven and seemed alert and attentive throughout the proceeding, passing notes to lawyers and following the dialogue through a translator.

Even without an explicit warning from the judge, multiple prospective jurors expressed concerns about their safety. A middle-aged white woman told the judge, “They’re making threats to the family of the jurors,” adding, “I read his family will come after the jurors and their family. He has two sons who are out there conducting his business… they make big money.” She was dismissed from the jury pool.

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One woman, who appeared to be in her early 20s, seemed fine during the one-on-one interview, but later she called Cogan out of the courtroom for a private discussion. He said afterward that she was weeping, but not because she was afraid for herself. Her mother had found out she could be on the El Chapo jury and told her, “We’ve got to move and get a new house.” El Chapo, sitting a few seats away, scoffed in disbelief.

Others seemed eager to be a part of the case. Numerous people said they’d be willing to drop their lives and serve on the jury, even if they would have to reschedule travel plans or not receive pay from their employers for several months.

Some were a little too excited about getting involved. A middle-aged man with a shaved head, who said he was born in Medellín, the home turf of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, claimed to know little about El Chapo despite getting most of his news from Telemundo. Cogan later told the attorneys in the case that a juror had approached a courtroom security officer and asked if he could get El Chapo’s autograph. The bald Colombian confessed to being the culprit, explaining that he was “a bit of a fan.” He, too, was dismissed.

A few seemed to legitimately have no clue about El Chapo or the Sinaloa cartel. Most people were at least vaguely familiar with his prison escapes and his smuggling tunnels beneath the border. A few had heard about his meeting with the actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. A couple, including two who were selected for the jury, had heard about a lavish birthday party that El Chapo’s wife had thrown recently for his 7-year-old twin daughters.

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Listen to Episode 2 of "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial":

Cogan asked everyone if they could put aside what they had heard about El Chapo and judge the case solely by the evidence. On several occasions, Cogan tried to plant doubts in the minds of prospective jurors about the accuracy of what they had read in the media.

“You understand there’s a lot stuff that comes out in the public that can be — not to overuse the phrase — but some of it can be fake news,” Cogan told one juror. He said to another, “Sometimes journalists make mistakes, and you can’t believe everything you read in the paper.”

The most common thread among the jurors was they had seen episodes of the show “Narcos” on Netflix. The show is about Pablo Escobar, and more than a few people seemed to confuse one infamous drug lord with another. One young woman, who was among those selected for the jury, said she’d watched four episodes. When asked what she remembered, she replied, “Honest answer? The DEA guy on the show is good-looking.”

R ead: Our podcast could "derail" jury selection, prosecutors say.

There were many moments of absurdity. A young man with a bushy ponytail who said he was “an official Michael Jackson impersonator” was excused because the judge was worried his unique profession would lead to his identity being revealed. One of El Chapo’s lawyers made a joke about doing the moonwalk as he shuffled out of the courtroom.

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Another man, a white guy with a goatee and long blond hair, said that he’d heard of El Chapo because his local deli in New York had a sandwich named after him on the menu. He described it as being lox, cream cheese, capers, and something “a little spicy” on a bagel. “I don’t know why it’s called the El Chapo but it’s delicious,” he said. The man was later dismissed when he expressed health concerns about a family member, and told the judge that he was worried the deli workers would be able to identify him based on his order.

The process provided a microcosm of New York City. There was one Trump supporter, but most potential jurors were left-leaning. More than a dozen people expressed support for legalizing marijuana and other drugs but said they could put their beliefs aside and convict El Chapo of drug offenses. Many were immigrants, including women from Poland and Ethiopia who were ultimately selected for the jury. A South Asian man was also among those selected.

Only one person, a middle-aged white man with a shaved head, was a supporter of President Trump. Asked about Trump’s views on immigrants, the man responded, “I don’t think the president is a racist guy at all.”

One lawyer then asked in reference to El Chapo, “You don’t think he’s a bad hombre?”

“I really don’t know much about him,” the man replied.

Read: The case against El Chapo: Drugs, murder, and some guys Trump calls "flippers"

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In the end, seven women and five men were selected for the jury. Another four women and two men were selected as alternates.Three are fluent Spanish speakers, and a fourth said she speaks a little bit. Most said they knew a little something about El Chapo but not many details. Several have connections to law enforcement, including a woman with a son in the NYPD, a man who's a retired corrections officer, a man who lives with a cousin who's an NYPD officer, and a woman who has relatives who work for the Department of Homeland Security.

Cogan opted to wait until next Tuesday to swear in the jury, until just before the defense and prosecution will give their opening statements. He said he was concerned that some jurors would get cold feet and try to find a way out of serving.

Five minutes after he left the courtroom, he returned to say that exactly that had already happened. He explained that a woman had wept and said she was afraid people would find out she’d been picked for the jury. The judge and attorneys for both sides agreed she should be forced to stay, otherwise it would set a precedent. She remains on the jury, at least for now.

In his parting words to the jurors, Cogan tried to offer reassurances.

“I’ll see you back here Tuesday,” the judge said, “for what I do believe will be a very interesting experience for all of you.”