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Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman to stick with public defenders

Judge Wants to Start Trial Next April

May 5, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese and Paul Frangipane Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A sketch of Joaquín Guzmán (front right in blue) and a gaggle of federal defense attorneys and interpreters who appeared with him during his status conference in Brooklyn federal court on Friday. Court sketch by Alba Acevedo
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Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was in Brooklyn federal court on Friday, where he decided to stick with his federal public defenders and the judge set an “aspirational” trial date for next April.

Guzman, the alleged billionaire leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, appeared before U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan on Friday morning for a curcio hearing to determine if he wanted to retain Michelle A. Gelernt and Michael K. Schneider, of Federal Defenders of New York, as his attorneys.

“Thank you, but I would like to stick with the lawyers that I have today,” Guzman said with the help of a translator when Cogan asked if he wanted to stick with his attorneys.

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There is a potential conflict with his attorneys, however, as they have represented four of the witnesses that are expected to be called during this trial in the past. If those witnesses are called during trial, they cannot be cross examined by Guzman’s attorneys and any information they gained through attorney-client privilege cannot be used in his defense.

Cogan questioned Guzman on three different occasions to be sure that Guzman understood exactly what was at stake.

“Yes, sir, I want to continue with my federal defense attorneys,” Guzman said through an interpreter.

Guzman had tried obtaining at least 16 private attorneys over the past three months, but has landed on representatives from the Federal Defenders, who were temporarily appointed by Judge James Orenstein at Guzman’s Jan. 20 arraignment.

The court made an inquiry into Guzman’s finances to check his eligibility for public defenders, shown in court documents filed on Jan. 27. Attorney Matthew Fishbein was signed into representation by Judge Cogan on Feb. 3 to provide additional counsel until the issue was sorted out on Friday.

A knowledgeable legal source suggested that Guzman might want to stick with the federal public defenders because of their experience practicing in the federal court. They suggested that in a complex federal trial such as this one that they might give him his best chance at trial.

“These are not your typical Legal Aid attorneys a couple years out of law school,” the source told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Federal public defenders have an enormous amount of experience. Some of them are great. In a case like this, the government usually has the defendant dead to rights and having someone with their experience will make a big difference.”

One of Guzman’s public defenders laughed after Cogan set a tentative trial date for April 16, 2018 that even the judge admitted was “aspirational.” Defense attorneys explained that there was no way they could even commit to a trial date at this point as they haven’t had enough time to sort through discovery that includes more than 10,000 documents.

“I recognize that it is somewhat aspirational,” Cogan said. “If it will slip, it will slip.”

Guzman’s defense attorneys explained that it is difficult to review court documents and other evidence through a Plexiglas wall that separates them from him when they visit him in jail.  Cogan said that he would have a magistrate judge write a report to see if something could be done to alleviate the issue.

Guzman argued against his restrictive measures at Metropolitan Correctional Center on May 4, requesting to be released into the normal prison population and have non-screened communication with his family. Cogan denied removal of all the measures but allowed Guzman to send pre-screened messages to his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, one of the only family members able to give Guzman the necessary funding for private attorneys.

Guzman, who appeared clean shaven in navy blue prison garb, would often turn to face his wife, who was dressed in all white, during Friday’s appearance.

Guzman was the leader of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest drug trafficking organization. He pled not guilty to all counts of a 17-count indictment on May 11, 2016, that showed two and a half decades of leading a criminal enterprise, narcotics trafficking and a money laundering conspiracy, among other charges, including the forfeit of $14 billion.

Guzman was extradited from Mexico on Jan. 19, 2017 and arraigned the next day in the Eastern District of New York. Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, being one of the newest rebuilt courthouses in the area, was chosen for Guzman’s case for its security.

His arrest came nearly six months after he escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico through a mile-long escape tunnel in the shower of his cell. The cost of the escape was estimated at more than a million dollars, according to court documents.


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