[What you need to know to start the day: Get New York Today in your inbox.]
In terms of bloodshed described in court, even the most violent Mafia cases have nothing on the trial of JoaquÃn GuzmÃ¡n Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo.
In the first four weeks of testimony, witnesses have recounted bone-chilling stories about people being stabbed in the face, getting gunned down on their doorsteps and nearly having their heads blown off. But while at least two dozens murders have already been discussed, many more dark tales â and much more grisly evidence â have gone unheard by jurors.
Judge Brian M. Cogan, who is presiding over the trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, has kept a tight leash on the gore, attempting to balance what is necessary to convey the stark realities of Latin American drug cartels and what is â literally â overkill. Judge Cogan seems to have taken the Goldilocks approach, looking for the spot between too much and not enough.
This week, however, his efforts were criticized by Mr. GuzmÃ¡nâs lawyers as they began to cross-examine their clientâs main cocaine supplier, Juan Carlos RamÃrez AbadÃa, an exceptionally violent man who, by his own admission, took part in at least 150 murders. When the lawyers asked Mr. RamÃrez to describe some of these crimes, Judge Cogan halted the line of inquiry.
âI am not understanding the relevance,â the judge confessed, noting he was concerned that the defense was âspending a lot of timeâ on Mr. RamÃrezâs slew of executions. While he did not stop the questions altogether, he did encourage the lawyers to discriminate a bit.
âSee if you cannot do 150 murders,â he suggested.
Judge Cogan has been hesitant before about permitting graphic evidence. Before the trial, prosecutors said they were planning to accuse Mr. GuzmÃ¡n of personally killing or ordering the deaths of more than 30 people â among them, rivals, law enforcement officers and turncoats from within his organization. But at a pretrial hearing in October, Judge Cogan said that number was âway too muchâ and âout of control.â He advised the government to sharply cut back.
âThis is a drug conspiracy case that involves murders,â he explained. âIâm not going to let you try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs.â
Judges often limit prejudicial evidence. For their part, prosecutors are not supposed to inundate jurors with inflammatory testimony that could sway their feelings toward defendants. In a similar way, defense lawyers are expected to keep their questions on cross-examination focused on those that impeach a witnessâs credibility.
Judge Cogan has been similarly cautious in restricting testimony on high-level narco-corruption in Mexico. But Mr. GuzmÃ¡nâs lawyers seemed especially displeased by his decisions this week regarding violence.
They complained that the rulings and suggestions have not only stopped them from thoroughly exploring the sadistic nature of the governmentâs witnesses, but have also sanitized the brutal violence for which drug cartels are known.
âMurder is an infamous act and infamous acts go right to the heart of someoneâs credibility,â one of the lawyers, William Purpura, said in court of Mr. RamÃrez. âWe have a right to go over all of these bad acts to show what type of character this is.â
The government, however, has seemed happy to comply with the judge. On direct examination, prosecutors never asked Mr. RamÃrez about any of the executions, leaving the defense to lead him through his lengthy list of victims.
Among them was an unnamed lawyer who was gunned down in a bookstore in Colombia after drunkenly discussing Mr. RamÃrezâs business. There was also a certain SeÃ±or Canoso who was shot in the head after stealing $2 million of the cocaine supplierâs money.
Mr. RamÃrez admitted to the defense that he even recorded the various expenses for his killings in scrupulous accounting ledgers. Some of the entries were exactingly precise. One listed a payment to a hit squad for $338,776.
It remains unclear how many more assassinations will be mentioned at the trial â and just how explicit the details will be. The government has not yet offered the evidence it has about the murder of Francisco Aceves UrÃas, a GuzmÃ¡n gunman known as Barbarino, who was slain three years ago in a restaurant parking lot in Mexico. Nor has the jury heard about the two rival traffickers whom Mr. GuzmÃ¡n is accused of doing away with after relaxing over lunch. Prosecutors claim that once the men were dead, he had their bodies tossed into a pit and set on fire.
But if Mr. RamÃrezâs testimony is a guide, the government may fight to keep out any further graphic evidence.
On Tuesday, for example, Mr. Purpura showed the jury a photo he had found by plugging the words â150 peopleâ into a Google image search. It was a visual aide, he claimed, designed to indicate just how large Mr. RamÃrezâs group of victims really was.
The prosecutors objected to the photo, saying it was âoverly prejudicial.â But Judge Cogan let it in â given one condition.
He asked Mr. Purpura to be sure to tell the jury that the people in the picture had not in fact been killed.