El Chapo was extradited to the US last December to stand trial for cartel-related crimes
Jailed Mexican cartel boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is reportedly in legal limbo Monday after a judge said he wouldn’t push prosecutors to promise they’d forgo a fight over fees paid to the drug lord’s newly hired tough battling team of attorneys.
Guzman, the reputed leader of the vicious Sinaloa Cartel, has lined up four lawyers to try fending off a sprawling drug trafficking case set for a marathon trial beginning in April.
The problem is, Brooklyn federal prosecutors — pressing for a $14 billion forfeiture — won’t make guarantees that they won’t try saying Guzman’s legal payments are property of Uncle Sam.
That’s made the new counsel queasy about formally stepping in.
On Monday, Brooklyn Federal Judge Brian Cogan decided not to get involved in the dust-up.Guzman was suddenly extradited to New York City in January, during the waning hours of the Obama Administration. He’s had government-appointed lawyers at the Federal Defenders of New York since his arrival.
Prosecutors have called Guzman “the most notorious drug trafficker in the world.” They say they’ve got dozens of witnesses-like Colombian cartel leaders and suppliers-ready to talk about dealing with Guzman
Prosecutors say Guzman, 60, funneled tons of drugs — literally — into the United States and ran his Sinaloa Cartel with bloody efficiency for decades, snuffing out witnesses and rivals while buying off politicians.
Trial is currently set to start in April 2018. The showdown could last up to three months, prosecutors say.
In early August, Guzman reportedly hired a team of veteran lawyers who know what it takes to play the high-stakes game defending against heavyweight prosecutions — and the team includes the lawyer for the son of the “Teflon Don.”
Attorney Jeffrey Lichtman’s past work included thwarting Manhattan federal prosecutors as they repeatedly tried pinning John A. Gotti — son of the infamous Gambino boss and namesake, John Gotti — on a slew of charges.
Earlier last week, Guzman’s current set of appointed lawyers asked the court to give prosecutors a deadline to say if they were coming after the legal fees paid to the alleged Mexican drug kingpin’s new lawyers.
Without those assurances, the new lawyers were “reluctant” to formally enter the case, the appointed lawyers said.
So far Guzman and his new team of lawyers have shown every indication that they have every intention of having a dust off with the government at trial.
Attorney Jeffrey Lichtman’s past work included thwarting Manhattan federal prosecutors as they repeatedly tried pinning John Gotti — son of the infamous Gambino boss, on a bagful of charges
On Monday however, the Federal Defenders filed a letter saying Guzman retained lawyers, but they were reluctant to formally enter the case without assurances that prosecutors wouldn’t go after their legal fees.
Lichtman said Guzman wasn’t familiar with the American criminal justice system and its players and spoke with dozens of lawyers.
“Ultimately, he made clear he wanted a fighter who was creative and fearless and has had experiencing trying — and succeeding — in cases of this magnitude,” Lichtman said. He added he knows what it’s like to go in front of juries that could be ready to convict based on media reports and the defendant’s reputation.
The new team have said they are willing to go to trial and have interest with any sort of plea deal; with the feds.
“What my experience in such cases has shown me is that jurors take their oaths seriously and are very capable of keeping open minds. And they understand that the government’s case is only as strong as their witnesses, many of which are lifelong liars and killers,” Lichtman said.
Inside the safe house and escape tunnel used by Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’
Still, if the sidelined lawyers want in, Cogan said they better act fast. He said he had no interest in pushing back the trial so that the new team can get up to speed.
After the brief, 15-minute court date, Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzman’s newly hired lawyers, told reporters he hoped to have clarity later this week. Guzman is set to meet Thursday with an unidentified family member, he said.
Guzman “has not ever met with family to discuss fees,” said Lichtman, later adding, “We’re not privy to any of that man’s finances.”
Lichtman said all the risk was being placed on the new lawyers — no one else. “We are looking forward desperately to come into this case. At this point though, we need to make some arrangements to make sure we can come in and that we’ll be able to actually get paid,” Lichtman said.
On Friday, prosecutors had told Guzman’s defense team not to hold their breath. They weren’t planning on serving up any guarantees, they insisted.
In court papers, prosecutors said their office “will not grant a blanket, prospective assurance that it will forgo forfeiture of any and all funds received from the defendant for his legal fees.”
Authorities say they’re pressing for Guzman to forfeit $14 billion in drug money.
If a possible legal fee forfeiture issue came up later on, prosecutors told Judge Cogan, the sides could deal with it then.
Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is attending his trial via satellite links, his transportation to and from court is considered fraught with risk
Michelle Gelernt, one of Guzman’s current lawyers with the Federal Defenders of New York, said the prosecution was being “completely hypocritical” by wondering if Guzman was eligible for a public defender, but also making no assurances with the hired lawyers.
While the clock ticks on Guzman, 60, his lawyers said he’s unraveling. Guzman’s 23-hour-a-day lock-up at the Metropolitan Correctional Center was “obscene” and the worst Lichtman said he’s seen in almost 30 years defending people accused of hard-core crimes.
Compared to months earlier, Lichtman said Guzman’s “not been as quick mentally” and takes more time to get acclimated when meeting with people.