Wanted: Twelve people who can take four months off work and who don’t mind sitting in judgment of a man said to be the most notorious criminal of the 21st century. Payment: About $40 a day.
Picking a jury is always hard, but it is even more so when the defendant on trial is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, a man accused of trafficking drugs by the ton and of having a hand in at least 30 murders.
Mr. Guzman — known to the world as El Chapo — is such a fearsome figure that earlier this year, the judge in the case ruled that the jury would remain anonymous and would be escorted for their safety to and from the court each day by United States Marshals.
[Read more about the unusual security measures being employed at the trial.]
Still, as jury selection started Monday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, it was largely smooth sailing as the potential jurors seemed to evince little fear of the man who sat across from them, silent but watchful, in a navy blue suit and a crisp white shirt that was open to his sternum.
Amid questions about their views on marijuana, their feelings about law enforcement and their fluency in Spanish, only one said that she was afraid of Mr. Guzman. Another admitted that the words “El Chapo” mostly made him think about a bagel sandwich served by a deli near his workplace that was named for the defendant. A third spent most of his time as he was questioned talking about his job as a Michael Jackson impersonator.
Many of the jurors said they recognized Mr. Guzman’s name and had at least heard that he was an international kingpin who had famously escaped from two Mexican prisons. Of the 46 people questioned on Monday by Judge Brian M. Cogan, 17 were dismissed, most of them because they said they could not be fair to Mr. Guzman or because the long trial would cause a financial hardship.
Security was exceedingly tight. The courthouse was guarded by marshals, local court officers, a bomb-sniffing dog and a heavily armed tactical team of New York City police officers. Precautions like these apparently unnerved one potential juror, who admitted that the prospect of deciding Mr. Guzman’s fate made her feel “unsafe.”
“What scares me is I read that his family will come after jurors and their families,” the woman said. She added that she knew that Mr. Guzman had two sons who were still at large. When a defense lawyer asked her if that made her nervous, she admitted that it did.
Several prospective jurors said they were familiar with Mr. Guzman from the Netflix series “El Chapo” or had seen his page on Wikipedia, but they seemed largely unaware that he had been charged almost a decade ago with running a criminal enterprise that smuggled cocaine and heroin into the United States from Mexico in a rotating fleet of cars, trucks, yachts, planes and submarines. Mr. Guzman also stands accused of protecting his empire by murdering — or ordering the deaths of — dozens of people.
[Read about some of the cooperating witnesses expected to testify.]
Opening arguments are scheduled to begin next Tuesday, assuming a jury has been picked. Prosecutors are expected to offer up the epic tale of Mr. Guzman’s rise from a teenage marijuana farmer to a ruthless kingpin who bribed officials in Mexico and often toted a gold-plated assault rifle. The jury will also likely hear about his two daring jailbreaks — one, at least according to lore, while hidden in a laundry cart and the other through a mile-long tunnel his associates dug into the shower of his cell.
But the sobering facts at the heart of the case did not preclude jury selection from veering at times into the absurd. There was, after all, the juror who noted that his local deli had a sandwich called the “El Chapo.”
William Purpura, one of Mr. Guzman’s lawyers, wanted to explore this coincidence, asking what precisely the sandwich was made of. It was, as it turned out, a bagel with cream cheese, capers and lox, the man explained.
“I don’t know why it’s called the ‘El Chapo,’” he said, “but it’s delicious.”