As El Chapo trial nears end, will the alleged Mexican drug lord testify in his own defense?

NEW YORK — The trial that could send accused Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán to prison for life is moving toward a conclusion: Closing arguments are expected as soon as next week.

But the timetable could be disrupted by a lingering question: Will Guzmán speak in his own defense, to rebut the avalanche of testimony provided by Guzmán's former associates?

The defense team raised the possibility when they included their client's name on the list of witnesses they might call. They're expected to make a final decision when the government rests its case, as early as Monday.

Defendants in high-profile criminal cases frequently opt not to testify, in part because taking the witness stand exposes them to potentially damaging cross-examination by prosecutors.

Ross Ulbricht, the suspect accused of founding and running the Silk Road drug-trafficking "darknet" website, didn't testify. Neither did so-called pharma bro Martin Shkreli, who was accused of scamming investors by violating securities laws.

Both were convicted.

Hermann Walz is a former New York City prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney.

For Guzmán, he said, the risks of taking the stand could outweigh any benefits.

"What's he going to say – 'It wasn't me?'" Walzasked. "If you get up on the stand and try that, it opens the door to a lot of questions about what you did do."

Guzmán's legal team, aware of the risks, has focused largely on trying to undermine the credibility of the former members of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel who have depicted their allegedformer boss as a murderer who led a broad conspiracy to smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics into the United States.

A court filing shows the defense team has made tentative plans to call federal investigators in a bid to highlight apparent discrepancies between written summaries of interviews with a prosecution witness and the actual testimony the witness provided in court.

But given the volume of evidence brought by the prosecution, at least one prominent defense attorney unconnected with the case feels Guzmán might need something stronger – and has nothing to lose by testifying.

"If Mr. Guzmán wants to tell his story, it would humanize him for the jury," said Bruce Cutler, the New York lawyer who won three acquittals for accused Gambino crime family bossJohn Gotti in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Dubbed the Teflon Don after those cases, Gotti eventually was convicted of racketeering and other crimes in 1992.

File photo taken in 1990 shows former Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. (AP Photo/File) [Via Merlin FTP Drop]
File photo taken in 1990 shows former Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. (AP Photo/File) [Via Merlin FTP Drop]

Guzmán might need a legal Hail Mary — or what Cutler dubbed a "let it all hang out" strategy – to counter the prosecution evidence.

When his trial adjourned for the week on Thursday, the 12 jurors and six alternates had heard testimony from 54 government witnesses over 33 days over the last two months.

The most recent 10 days of testimony alone showed the legal mountain facing Guzmán:

• Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, the defendant's alleged former mistress, divulged what prosecutors said were details of his drug trafficking. She also recounted how how she and her naked lover evaded a team of Mexican marines by running through a drainage tunnel accessed by a secret entrance under a bathtub in a Culiacán safehouse.

• Former top Guzmán lieutenant Dámaso López Nuñez didn't limit his testimony to his former compadre's alleged drug smuggling operation. He also implicated Guzmán's wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, in her husband's infamous 2015 tunnel escape from a Mexican prison.

• And Isaias Valdez Rios, a former security guard, personal aide and pilot for Guzmán, testified that his ex-boss tortured and fatally shot enemies — and ordered one badly wounded man buried alive.

The wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Emma Coronel Aispuro, arrives at the US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on January 14, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Don EMMERT / AFP)
The wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Emma Coronel Aispuro, arrives at the US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on January 14, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Don EMMERT / AFP)

The testimony, by turns lurid and grisly, appeared to have little impact on the relationship between Guzmán and his wife. Days after after Sánchez told jurors she had been the "housewife" who shopped for Guzmán's jeans, sneakers and underwear, Guzmán and Coronelarrived in court wearing wine-red velvet jackets.

If Guzmán opts to testify, the trial could be extended for days.

Already-scarce courtroom seats — roughly 35 available for news reporters and the general public — go quickly to those who join a line that typically forms outside the courthouse before 5:30 a.m.

Some disappointed visitors follow the trial in an overflow courtroom, where the proceedings are transmitted via a closed-circuit video feed.

Courthouse officials, trying to accommodate the interest in all things El Chapo, plan to transmit the video feed to a second courtroom for potential testimony from the alleged drug lord and closing statements by the prosecution and defense.

Markus Lotz, a New York attorney whose practice has focused on mergers and acquisitions – "far from all of these charges of violent crime" – arrived before dawn Thursday to snag a seat.

"It's a very interesting case, with a lot of national and international interest," he said. "I had some time, so I wanted to come down and hear some of the testimony."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc

Video: El Chapo Trial - Government Shows Escape Tunnel Video

 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As El Chapo trial nears end, will the alleged Mexican drug lord testify in his own defense?

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