The Chicago Syndicate: Prosecution Rests Its Case and Joaquin Guzman Does Not Take the Stand in His Defense #ElChapo
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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Prosecution Rests Its Case and Joaquin Guzman Does Not Take the Stand in His Defense #ElChapo

The most common methods the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera used to avoid imprisonment in Mexico was to either escape (which he did twice) or to not get caught in the first place. But now that the kingpin, known as El Chapo, is standing trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, his lawyers have been forced to mount an actual defense. As many had suspected, it emerged they did not offer one.

Mr. Guzmán’s case to the jury began at 9:38 a.m. when one of his lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, called to the stand an F.B.I. agent who explained his own small role in obtaining a piece of evidence that did not relate to the defendant. Mr. Lichtman also read aloud a stipulation, noting that for several years, his client was in debt.

Mr. Lichtman finished his presentation at 10:08 a.m. “And with that, judge,” he said, “the defense rests.”

It was clear from the beginning of the trial that little could be done for Mr. Guzmán who, after all, had been under investigation by American authorities for more than a decade. Complicating matters, he had also effectively confessed to being a drug lord in an interview with Rolling Stone two years ago. But Mr. Guzmán’s 30-minute jury presentation seemed particularly small compared to the monumental case prosecutors brought to a close on Monday. For more than 10 weeks, the government buried the defendant in a Matterhorn of evidence from 56 witnesses, including recorded phone calls of the kingpin doing business and intercepted messages of him, his wife and mistresses.

Mr. Guzmán’s courtroom troubles began in November from the moment Mr. Lichtman delivered his opening statement. In a bold move, he claimed his client had been framed for years by his partner in the Sinaloa drug cartel, Ismael Zambada Garcia, who Mr. Lichtman alleged had conspired with “crooked” American drug agents and a hopelessly corrupt Mexican government.

Two main problems emerged with this argument. One was that Judge Brian M. Cogan cut it short at the government’s request, stopping Mr. Lichtman in the middle of his speech by telling him that anything he had said was unlikely to be supported by evidence. The other was that the argument, even if true, did not exclude the possibility that Mr. Guzmán was a narco lord guilty of the charges he was facing.

During the trial, Mr. Lichtman and the two other members of Mr. Guzmán’s legal team — William Purpura and A. Eduardo Balarezo — largely spent their time attacking the credibility of the government’s 14 cooperating witnesses. Their efforts sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Most of the witnesses had also been previously charged with federal crimes and usually confessed to their misdeeds before the defense could bring them out.

Before the trial, the kingpin’s lawyers had mostly focused their attention on pointing out the harsh conditions of his confinement in the high-security wing of the Manhattan federal jail. Given Mr. Guzmán’s history of jailbreaks, he was kept for several months in isolation, forbidden to occupy the same room as his lawyers. Pretrial meetings were conducted — awkwardly at best — through a perforated plexiglass window.

In several motions, Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers sought to persuade Judge Cogan that such severe conditions had eroded their client’s right to adequate legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment. While the judge improved the circumstances slightly, he was mostly unconvinced that Mr. Guzmán’s constitutional rights had been violated.

Last week, intense speculation arose over whether Mr. Guzmán might take the stand and become his own star witness. But after days of conversations with his lawyers, he told Judge Cogan on Monday that he did not plan to testify.

Little is known about those conversations because of the protections of the attorney-client privilege. But after Mr. Guzmán addressed the court, Mr. Purpura told Judge Cogan that he and his partners had explained to their client the legal perils of undergoing cross-examination. Mr. Guzmán then decided not to testify “knowingly and voluntarily,” Mr. Purpura said.

The kingpin’s lawyers will have one more shot at persuading the jury Thursday when they deliver their summation. But even that will be severely restricted if the government has its way.

On Monday night, prosecutors filed a motion to Judge Cogan asking him to preclude the defense from arguing, as they did in opening statements, that Mr. Zambada, known as Mayo, had quietly conspired with Mexican and American officials to target Mr. Guzmán.

The prosecutors not only said the claim was “preposterous,” but also quoted back Judge Cogan words from the second day of the trial. “You can have two drug dealers, one of whom is paying off the government and one of whom is not,” he had said. “That does not mean the one who is not didn’t do the crimes.”

Thanks to Alan Feuer.

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