Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s lawyers suffered a setback Wednesday when the judge overseeing his Brooklyn federal court case told jurors not to read too deeply into allegations that he was framed by corrupt officials.
Judge Brian Cogan’s uncommon instruction stemmed from a letter filed by prosecutors early Wednesday morning asking him to throw out the opening statement made by Guzman’s defense lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman.
In his opening, Lichtman had claimed that the accused drug kingpin was the fall guy for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, 70, who remains on the run though facing indictment for narcotics charges.
Zambada was the true leader of the Sinaloa Cartel—not Guzman—but is still free because “he bribed the entire government of Mexico—including the current president of Mexico...the current and former president of Mexico received hundreds of millions in bribes from Mayo….” Lichtman said.
“The government argued that the court should preclude the defendant from arguing to the jury that the governments of the United States and Mexico selectively targeted him for prosecution,” prosecutors said of their prior arguments against this approach.
“As the government explained in that motion, because the ‘government’s motive in bringing charges against a defendant is irrelevant to guilt, by asking the jury to focus on the government’s conduct, the defense would be encouraging the jury to decide the case based on something other than the elements of the charged crimes,” they said in their nine-page letter.
“Nonetheless, despite the court’s clear ruling in place to avoid this exact situation, Mr. Lichtman chose to present this argument in opening statements in an attempt to improperly sway the jury. Mr. Lichtman’s calculated decision to disregard the court’s order has prejudiced the government; to attempt to rectify that prejudice, the court should strike the statement and instruct the jury to disregard it.”
Cogan said striking Lichtman’s opening would be “pretty radical” and did not strike it. He agreed, however, to instruct the jury that “the government’s motives are not on trial.”
“What does it matter if the last two presidents of Mexico took a bribe if the bribes are not tied to the defendant here?” Cogan told lawyers at one point.
Cogan told the panel of bored-and-tired-looking jurors that it’s up to him to decide the government’s conduct, not them.
The only question for them to weigh, Cogan said, is “has the government proven the defendant guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt?”
Lichtman, who completed his opening Wednesday, nonetheless continued alluding to corruption, perhaps avoiding Cogan’s wrath by discussing it in the context of cooperating witnesses’ questionable characters. One cooperating witness paid off a president of Honduras. Another cooperator had a four-gram-per-day cocaine habit over a 15-year period, Lichtman said.
“That is an unbelievable amount of cocaine,” Lichtman said, describing this as enough for “four frat parties on a Saturday night in the ‘80s—combined.”
Lichtman also downplayed Guzman’s infamous Rolling Stone interview with actor Sean Penn prior to his capture, in which he said: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
“Mr. Guzman was someone who, for better or for worse, enjoyed the notoriety,” Lichtman said of his client. “Why else would somebody do something as insane as that?”
And Guzman, whose defense reportedly costs up to $5 million, is actually poor—owing one cooperating witness $90 million, Lichtman said.
Lichtman said cooperators were using their assistance to get residency and that “they don’t suddenly become human” after coming to America.
He told the jury that these cooperators were poised “to live amongst you” after diming on Guzman at least four times.
Guzman’s dedicated wife, beauty queen Emma Coronel, seemed to be in better spirits than Tuesday, sporting a form-fitting metallic blue blazer and tight black pants to court.
Coronel had complained to one of Guzman’s lawyers that he didn’t look very good on the first day of his trial. Guzman had worn a navy blue suit.
This morning Guzman—who looked longingly at Coronel throughout much of the proceeding—donned a slate suit with a lavender shirt and violet tie.
Coronel had a one-word response when a reporter asked whether she thought her husband looked more handsome.
Siempre, she said with a smile. “Always.”