The federal trial of religious sect leader Dwight “Malachi” York that resulted in his conviction on child molestation and racketeering charges and a 135-year prison sentence was fraught with errors by nearly all parties involved, according to an appeals brief filed with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
York’s attorney, Adrian Patrick of Athens, said the brief lays out how the prosecution improperly applied federal racketeering laws, the trial judge erred when ruling on defense motions, a grand jury was tainted by pre-trial publicity and one of York’s own trial lawyers jeopardized his client’s appeal by withdrawing a crucial motion.
“There are 10 basic categories we are attacking on the appeal,” Patrick said Wednesday. “The appeal had a 14,000-word limit, so we could not list all of the issues, but if we could there would be 20 or 30.”
U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood, who headed the prosecution during a three-week trial in Brunswick, was unavailable for comment Wednesday. His spokeswoman, Sue McKinney, said Wood would have no comment on Friday’s appeal, noting the government had until Dec. 13 to file its response.
A federal jury in January convicted York on charges of conspiracy, racketeering, conspiracy to transport minors for unlawful sex, transporting minors for unlawful sex, traveling interstate to engage in unlawful sex, and structuring cash transactions to avoid reporting requirements.
The convictions were based largely on the testimony of former members of York’s cult, the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, who said he began molesting children as young as 8 years old in New York, where the cult was founded, and continued doing so after moving the group in 1993 to a 476-acre compound outside Eatonton in Putnam County, as well as at the sect leader’s mansion on Mansfield Court in Athens. Former Nuwaubians testified York had manipulated the sect’s finances for personal gain from 1998 until his arrest in 2002.
During the trial, Patrick had maintained the allegations of sexual abuse of children had been fabricated by a small group of York’s estimated 5,000 followers and spearheaded by a woman who used to manage the Nuwaubian’s business office but was kicked out of the group.
A notice of appeal was filed soon after the conviction, and U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal handed down what is essentially a life-sentence for the 59-year-old York – 135 years in prison.
York, who currently goes by the name of Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle, is in a special housing unit of the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan.
York had filed a motion for a new trial, but it was denied by Royal in August. The motion had claimed that a key government witness, Habiba Abigail Washington, had recanted her testimony, saying that York had not sexually molested her. During a hearing on the motion, Washington stood by her trial testimony, saying she had tried recanting because she felt sorry for the aging sect leader.
Patrick was fired as York’s attorney after the verdict, but was re-hired for the appeal.
After his removal from the case, however, a different attorney withdrew a motion asking the trial judge to make a “judgment of acquittal” on the basis that the prosecution had failed to make its case against York beyond a reasonable doubt.
By withdrawing the motion, Patrick said, the defense was denied a judicial ruling on which it could base the appeal.
“It has jeopardized certain appellate issues,” he said.
Another issue in the appeal is that Patrick had been denied a request to delay the start of York’s trial on the basis he needed time to prepare, as he had been brought on to lead the defense team only six days before opening statements were to begin.
Patrick said his brief states that even after York’s trial was moved from Macon to Brunswick on a judge’s ruling the jury pool had been tainted by pre-trial publicity, the prosecution went to that same jury pool to pick a grand jury that in 2003 returned a superseding indictment against his client.
In addition, the prosecution improperly laid down a foundation for its Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) allegations, according to Patrick, equating the claims of sexual molestation with the Nuwaubian organization.
“If an individual commits an act, that doesn’t mean the organization as a whole was an enterprise for criminal activity.” Patrick said. “When Catholic priests were arrested for sexual molestation, they didn’t indict the entire Catholic Church for RICO violations.”