Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Plain Terror

United States v. Marcus, No. 07-4005-cr (2d Cir. December 7, 2010) (Calabresi, Straub, Wesley, CJJ)

This is Marcus’ second go-round in the circuit. He won the first time, in August of 2008, (see “Sex Post Facto”, posted August 18, 2008). The government got cert, and the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the first panel had used an incorrect plain error standard. In this decision, on remand from the Supremes, Marcus had only a partial win.

The underlying conduct is particularly disturbing. From October of 1998 through June of 1999, Marcus was in a consensual, albeit kinky, sexual relationship with “Jodi.” This nature of the relationship changed in October 1999 when Jodi refused to recruit her sister to become one of Marcus’ “sex slaves.” In response, Marcus “punished” Jodi severely, and began to terrorize her regularly. With this, the relationship became nonconsensual.

In January of 2000, Marcus directed Jodi to move to New York and forced her to create a website called “Slavespace.” She worked eight or nine hours a day on the site but Marcus received all of the revenues. This was not a voluntary arrangement. Even after she found full time work of her own, Marcus made her continue working on the site, and would brutalize her physically and sexually if he was unhappy with her efforts. The trial evidence described a particularly harrowing “punishment” that occurred in April of 2001.

In March of 2001, Jodi told Marcus that she wanted to end their arrangement. He said he would let her go if she endured one final punishment, but she was so terrorized by the punishment that she did leave. A few months later, the woman with whom she was living told Marcus that she did not want Jodi there any more. Jodi moved out and their contact gradually diminished, ending entirely in 2003.

In 2007, the government charged Marcus with violating the federal forced labor statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1589, and the sex trafficking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1). Those statutes were enacted on October 28, 2000, but the indictment charged Marcus with violating them from January of 1999 through October of 2001. Marcus did not seek a jury instruction based on the statutes’ enactment date, nor did he raise any issue about retroactive application in his Rule 29 motion.

On his appeal, however, he argued that the statutes were applied to him retroactively in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. The panel, reviewing this unpreserved claim, applied binding circuit precedent, under which plain error review required a new trial if there was “any possibility, how matter how unlikely,” that an “uninstructed jury would have convicted the defendant based exclusively on pre-enactment conduct.” It accordingly vacated the conviction on both counts. A concurrence, authored by then-Judge Sotomayor, pointed out that although the panel was bound by the circuit’s existing plain error test, this test was inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. The concurrence would have vacated only the sex trafficking count and would have affirmed the forced labor count because for that count the was “no plausible argument” that the jury would have differentiated between Marcus’ pre-and post enactment conduct.

On the government’s appeal, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded because the “any possibility however remote” standard was indeed inconsistent with that Court’s plain error review precedents.

In this do-over, the original panel, with Calabresi substituting for Sotomayor, agreed with the original opinion’s concurrence. It found that there could only be plain error under the fourth prong of the plain error test – the error must have “seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of” the proceedings – if there was a “reasonable probability that the jury would not have convicted him absent the error.”

Here, with respect to the forced labor statute, there was no such “reasonable probability.” The government presented post-enactment evidence sufficient to satisfy the elements of that statute. The forced labor on the “Slavespace” began in January of 2000, before the statute’s October enactment, but continued into at least June of 2001 – the April 2001 punishment episode was itself post-enactment. Thus, the jury would have found that Marcus obtained Jodi’s labor through the threat of serious physical harm and actual physical harm – the statutory standard – after October of 2000. Nor would there have been any “reasoned basis” for a jury to differentiate between Marcus’ pre- and post- enactment conduct. Indeed, if anything Marcus’ use of force against Jodi increased post-enactment.

By contract, however, the court adhered to his original ruling on the sex trafficking conviction. In fact, the government conceded on this point. Marcus transported Jodi to New York in early 2000, before the statute was enacted. From then on, he harbored her there. Thus, the conduct supporting this conviction “differed materially before and after October 2000 such that there is a reasonable probability that the erroneous jury charge affected the outcome of the trial” and the “fairness integrity or public reputation of the proceedings.”

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