NEW YORK – Jury selection began Monday for the U.S. trial of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman with potential jurors, including a self-described professional Michael Jackson impersonator, quizzed about how much they knew about Guzman's reputation as a ruthless drug lord in Mexico.
They were also questioned in Brooklyn's federal court about their views on the legalization of marijuana, their fluency in Spanish and their feelings toward both law enforcement and cooperating witnesses. Guzman sat at the defense table listening through an interpreter and wearing street clothes — a dark suit and a white shirt with an open collar — instead of a jail uniform for the first time since he was extradited to the United States early last year.
Guzman has pleaded not guilty to charges that his Sinaloa cartel smuggled tons of cocaine and other drugs, laundered billions of dollars and oversaw a ruthless campaign of murders and kidnappings. He faces life in prison if convicted. Opening statements in the trial are expected Nov. 13.
Potential jurors arrived at the courthouse Monday to find it under tight security that included heavily armed officers, some doing sweeps with bomb-sniffing dogs. Prosecutors have also sought to hide the identity of cooperating witnesses out of concerns the cartel could seek retribution, while a judge is keeping the jury anonymous to protect them from intimidation.
Most of the would-be jurors questioned at the outset said Guzman's name "sounded familiar" to them. Some mentioned they were aware he had escaped from prison in Mexico. Others recalled how he did an interview with actor Sean Penn while he was on the run.
One potential juror was excused after she indicated the case made her feel unsafe. Another was sent home after she said she couldn't be impartial, saying, "I feel very bad about drugs."
One man mentioned that a local deli near where he works has on a menu featuring a bagel sandwich with a name that was a reminder of Guzman.
"I don't know why it's called the 'El Chapo,'" he said. "But it's delicious."
And as for the Michael Jackson impersonator, prosecutors expressed some concern his identity couldn't be kept secret because there are so few people in his profession.
Both he and the sandwich-lover were kept in the jury pool for the time being.