Judge on El Chapo case is Chicagoan and U of I grad

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Federal prosecutors here may have been big-footed by their New York brethren in the first crack at drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but it will be a Chicago native who has the last word in the case.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, born in Chicago in 1954, is presiding over the El Chapo prosecution in the Eastern District of New York. Judge Cogan received his B.A. degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1975.

On Monday, Cogan ruled that jurors in the high-profile El Chapo case will be anonymous and transported to and from court by U.S. marshals during the trial that is currently scheduled to begin in September. Judge Cogan’s order that they also be sequestered from the public came after government lawyers pointed to El Chapo’s “history of interference with the judicial process” and “means to harm the jury.”

The drug lord’s attorneys opposed the secrecy and security contending that jurors “have nothing to fear.”

“Such an order would unduly burden Mr. Guzman’s presumption of innocence, impair his ability to conduct meaningful voir dire (examination of potential jurors) and create the extremely unfair impression that he is a dangerous person from whom the jury must be protected,” Eduardo Balarezo wrote in a motion filed last week.

In Brooklyn the notorious boss of the Sinaloa Cartel and master of escape will have an opportunity to defend himself against a 17-count indictment alleging that he headed a criminal enterprise responsible for importing and distributing massive amounts of narcotics and conspired to murder rivals. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that also include trafficking-related firearm violations and money laundering involving the smuggling of more than $14 billion in cash from the United States to Mexico.

New York prosecutors told Judge Cogan that Guzman’s “history of interference with the judicial process,” includes two dramatic prison escapes in his native Mexico and that jurors’ safety and security needed to be ensured by the court. They also pointed his alleged use of “sicarios,” or hit men, to murder rivals and potential witnesses in Mexico.

The assassins carried out hundreds of acts of murders, assaults, kidnappings and acts of torture at Guzman’s direction, according to prosecutors.

He has been in solitary confinement in the New York federal lockup due to his propensity for escaping. In 2001, Guzman vamoosed from a Mexican prison in a laundry cart with the help of corrupt prison officials.

In 2015 he went AWOL again via an elaborate tunnel that his associates had dug from the shower of his prison cell to an abandoned home more than a mile away. El Chapo rode a motorcycle on underground rails to the other end of the tunnel.

Potential jurors could fear retaliation from associates of Guzman, leaving them “unable to adequately perform their duties as jurors — if their identities are publicly available,” the motion stated. The Chicago-bred judge agreed on Monday, granting the motion for a secret panel of jurors-and denying a hearing that would have allowed the defense to discuss it.

Guzman, 60, is commonly known as “El Chapo” which loosely translates as “shorty.” He was extradited to the United States from Mexico in January 2017-and immediately brought to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn for arraignment.

He is still under a similar federal indictment in Chicago but is not expected to be tried here. Some elements of the Chicago case will be folded into the New York prosecution, according to investigators.

Solitary confinement in a cold, small cell at a federal lockup in Manhattan has left Guzman forgetting names and places and suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and depression, according to his lawyer.

Guzman also is charged with trafficking-related firearm violations and money laundering involving the smuggling of more than $14 billion in cash from the United States to Mexico.

Judge Cogan was appointed by President George W. Bush and took the bench in June, 2006. He holds a law degree from Cornell (1979.) He spent most of his career with the firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, focusing on commercial litigation in including accountants liability and securities fraud, insolvency, and cross-border litigation. He has taught as an Adjunct Professor at Brooklyn Law School; is also a Judge Advocate General in the New York Guard, holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel according to his bio.

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