NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. judge on Friday set an April 2018 trial date for Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on charges he oversaw a multibillion-dollar international drug trafficking organization responsible for murders and kidnappings.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan first suggested during a pretrial hearing in Brooklyn that a trial could occur earlier next year, but he settled on April 16 after acknowledging the difficulty defense lawyers are having communicating with Guzman in a federal lockup in Manhattan where he is subjected to solitary confinement.
Defense lawyers complained they are separated by glass or a screen from Guzman during meetings, hindering communications. The judge said the matter will be investigated.
In a written ruling a day earlier, Cogan let the government keep most restrictions in place for a defendant famous for twice escaping from prison in Mexico, including once through a milelong tunnel stretching from the shower in his cell.
The U.S. government has said severe restrictions are necessary for Guzman in part because he used coded messages, bribes and other means to arrange escapes and continue directing his drug empire from behind bars.
Guzman was brought to the U.S. in January. He has pleaded not guilty.
As Guzman, 59, entered a packed courtroom Friday, he nodded toward his wife, a former beauty queen who smiled and waved to him from her seat among spectators. Throughout an hourlong hearing, the couple met eyes repeatedly as his wife leaned forward from a wooden bench.
The short, stocky Guzman listened to a Spanish translation of the proceeding through a headphone dangling from one ear.
He spoke directly to the judge for a portion of the hearing during which Cogan ensured Guzman was willing to keep his lawyers from the Federal Defenders of New York despite government claims they could be compromised because four potential trial witnesses against him had been represented in the past by the same office.
"Yes, sir, I want to continue with my federal defender attorneys," he told the judge.
As the judge pressed through questions to be sure Guzman had been properly informed of potential conflict-of-interest issues and was not pressured into keeping his lawyers, the defendant said: "Yes, sir, I am making my own decisions."
In a written decision Thursday, Cogan relaxed restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures enough for Guzman to communicate with his wife through written questions and answers.
Assistant Public Defender Michael Schneider, speaking outside court, said the judge's solution was "cold comfort" for Guzman and his wife, who are "both upset they're not going to be able to see each other."
Michelle Gelernt, deputy attorney-in-charge of the Public Defenders, said solitary confinement was taking a toll on her client, in part because he was already dealing with the consequences of incarceration in Mexico.
"We think it's widely accepted that solitary confinement has long-lasting, serious consequences both mentally and physically. That's true no matter who you are and what you are accused of," she said.