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The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán created a media circus for three months in Brooklyn, so it seems fitting that the Sinaloa cartel’s leader’s fate may now hinge on a news story.
El Chapo’s defense attorneys requested a new trial last month, claiming his Feb. 12 conviction should be overturned because of juror misconduct. Their argument was based almost entirely on a VICE News interview with a juror from the case. Published eight days after Chapo was found guilty on all 10 counts of his federal indictment, the anonymous juror described routinely violating the judge’s orders not to read about the case in the press, among other violations of court rules.
On Monday, the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York filed a 96-page rebuttal (see PDF below) to El Chapo’s request for a new trial, offering Judge Brian Cogan a litany of reasons and legal precedents for why the jury’s verdict should be allowed to stand. Prosecutors argued that Cogan should be skeptical of VICE News’ story, but they also laid out the case for why Chapo doesn't deserve a new trial even if the reporting is entirely accurate.
“The defendant is not innocent,” the prosecutors wrote. “He committed horrific crimes as the co-leader of the Sinaloa cartel, and the jury rightfully convicted him based on the overwhelming evidence the government presented.”
What happens next is entirely up to the judge. Experts who spoke previously with VICE News, including former federal prosecutors, said Cogan might be unlikely to grant a new trial not just because of the voluminous evidence against Chapo but also because the government already devoted extraordinary time and resources to carrying out the first trial. Prosecutors also argued that overturning Chapo’s conviction would set a dangerous precedent, encouraging future defendants to seek out jurors after a guilty verdict and undermine the integrity of the court system.
Chapo’s defense team will likely receive another chance to weigh in, then Cogan will decide whether to grant their request for an “evidentiary hearing,” where jurors could be questioned under oath about their behavior during the trial. Jeffrey Lichtman, one of three main attorneys who represented El Chapo during the trial, said Monday that prosecutors don’t want that to happen.
“Not surprisingly, the government is desperate to avoid a hearing which would include testimony from the jurors,” Lichtman said. “They know full well it will reveal that the jurors systematically lied to the judge regarding their claims of not seeing any media coverage during the trial.”
That’s not how prosecutors see it. They argue that even if jurors did break the rules, “the overwhelming evidence supporting the jury’s verdict showed the defendant to be a ruthless, bloodthirsty and cruel leader of the prolific Sinaloa Cartel.”
A copy of our story about the juror was included as “Exhibit A” with the government’s court filing Monday, and it’s referenced throughout the filing as “the VICE News Article.”
The piece is described as being “fashioned in a ‘tell-all, confessional style.” Prosecutors also note — as does the original story itself — that the allegations about juror misconduct are uncorroborated and anonymously sourced.
Our story was based on a two-hour interview with a juror in the case, and several steps were taken to confirm that the person interviewed did indeed serve. At the juror’s request, we withheld identifying information, including their gender and whether they were an alternate or a participant in jury deliberations.
Most significantly, the juror claimed that at least five people were aware of news reports that said Chapo allegedly drugged and raped girls as young as 13. That information, which was based on court documents that were unsealed at the request of VICE News and the New York Times, was intentionally withheld from the jury during the trial over concerns that it would be prejudicial to Chapo.
The juror said several people lied to the judge about seeing news coverage of the rape allegtions, but it didn’t seem to factor into the verdict. Prosescutors claimed that coverage of the rape allegations may have actually helped Chapo, since it also included damaging information about Alex Cifuentes, a key government witness.
Prosecutors note in their latest filing that two jurors acknowledged under questioning from the judge that they had been exposed to some news coverage prior to deliberations. Prosecutors claim that incident contradicts what the juror told VICE News about lying to the judge.
The idea that multiple jurors conspired to lie the judge about reading news articles “defies belief,” prosecutors said, because “on three separate occasions during trial, jurors brought potential issues to the court’s attention.” Prosecutors suggested that the juror would have alerted the judge about the misconduct, since there were several instances during the trial where people faced no punishment after coming forward.
The juror, however, still felt like there would be repercussions. “I thought we would get arrested,” they said. “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.”
Chapo’s global celebrity factored into the trial from the very beginning, with the judge frequently warning jurors to avoid media coverage and not discuss the case amongst each other. Prosecutors counted up all of Cogan’s warnings and found “at least 45” instances where he implored the jurors not to read about the case in the media, enough for “every single day of trial, sometimes more than once on the same day.”
“Do not talk to anybody about this case,” Cogan said in one example cited by the prosecution. “Do not post anything on social media. No Googling, no Facebooking, no Binging, no Twittering, no nothing at all about this, please. Stay away from any media coverage of the case.”
Prosecutors speculated that jurors who speak with the press after a high-profile trial are sometimes motivated by “unhappiness with the verdict,” the pursuit of money, or “a simple desire for notoriety.” In the case of the VICE News story, the juror demanded anonymity and requested nothing in exchange for speaking out. If anything, they were reluctant to come forward given the stakes.
“I'm either brave or stupid,” the juror told VICE News. “It could go either way.”
Cover: Joaquin Guzman is escorted by Mexican security forces at a Navy hangar in Mexico City, Mexico, on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. (Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)