By: MEAGHAN NEWKIRK
Brittany Lease met Michael Lawrence Maynes, Jr. on Facebook in May 2012. Their first in-person interaction did not seem too unusual: they hung out at his house, smoked weed, and fooled around. Not unusual that is, until Lease posed in lingerie, so Maynes could advertise her online for commercial sex. Lease was only 19-years-old, and she was homeless after recently aging out of foster care.
These characteristics made Lease an attractive target for Maynes—the ringleader of the Horse Block Pimpin’ sex trafficking conspiracy. Like with so many other women, Maynes made promises to Lease that he never intended on fulfilling. Over the year after their first encounter, Lease gave Maynes all her earnings. Though she left Virginia for work elsewhere, Lease found herself coming back to Maynes. Despite having to pay him to return, despite working to pay for his lawyer when he was in jail, she kept coming back. After all, she said, “[H]e took care of me . . . because I didn’t have nobody.”
Her last return was different, though, because she had her tiny three-month-old son in tow. Lease made arrangements with Walker, Maynes’s baby mama, to care for her son. When she put him in a car on his way to “daycare,” Lease had no idea that she’d be saying goodbye indefinitely—or that her son would soon be hours away in another state.
Lease’s experience was not unique. The women victimized by Horse Block Pimpin’ were frequently mothers, sometimes homeless, and often struggling with addiction. Maynes did whatever necessary to win them over—told them what they wanted to hear, even charmed them. One woman moved to Virginia from Texas when he feigned romantic interest. Another depended on his promise of a home, a car, and the stability necessary to regain custody of her children.
Maynes worked with Brittany Walker; Robert Everett Bonner, Jr.; Stefanie McLaughlin; and Michael Anthony Randall to traffic numerous women in Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York from 2007 to 2013. He used a variety of coercive methods to keep business running smoothly. He would set quotas for each woman—dictating when, for how much, and for how long she had to work. Then, of course, he pocketed the profits. Resistance was met with physical violence or its threat. Some women, particularly those with substance abuse problems, were supplied with drugs. Maynes would sometimes confiscate victims’ cell phones to isolate them and identification documents to limit their movements.
For mothers, like Lease, visits with small children would become the ever-further, never-materializing prize. Once, when Lease asked for the day off, Maynes instructed Walker to tell her that “her baby can’t afford any days off right now.” After repeatedly begging to see her child, Walker informed Lease that Maynes required her to earn $3,000 before she’d be allowed to visit him. Her desire to be with her son was the only reason Lease let Maynes and Walker continue to send her customers.
Investigation, Trial and Sentence
An investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) ended the illegal activities of Horse Block Pimpin’. By the time of Maynes’s arrest warrant, three of his co-conspirators had already pled guilty.1 Following a four-day trial in May 2016, a federal jury found Maynes guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and four counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion. Maynes was sentenced to 420 months of imprisonment. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the victims in the amount of $405,400.
Possible Errors on Appeal
Maynes appealed the judgment, arguing that the district court erred in (1) refusing his proffered jury instruction, (2) excluding evidence of the victims’ sexual histories, (3) finding the evidence sufficient to support conviction, and (4) not granting him a new trial because of ineffective assistance of counsel.
On January 18, 2018, the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion regarding Maynes’ appeal.2 The court first addressed Maynes’s jury instruction. The federal sex trafficking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a), is violated when one commits actions constituting sex trafficking with the knowledge “that means of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion . . . will be used to cause the person to engage in a commercial sex act.” Maynes had sought a jury instruction that defined fraud to require qualifying misrepresentations to be material, and he appealed the district court’s use of an instruction without this definition. The Fourth Circuit agreed that materiality is a necessary aspect of fraud but rejected Maynes’s claim because it found the district court’s instructions, when considered as a whole, adequately communicated the materiality requirement.
Victim’s Sexual History Fair Game?
The Fourth Circuit then addressed the exclusion of the victims’ sexual histories. Specifically, Maynes asserted that the inability to cross-examine witnesses about their previous experience with commercial sex work violated his constitutional rights because it prevented him from arguing that such experience made them less susceptible to fraud or coercion. He wanted to argue, in other words, that they knew what they were getting into. The district court had granted exclusion in a preliminary ruling based on Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 412. Rule 412(a)(1) prohibits the admission of “evidence offered to prove that a victim engaged in other sexual behavior” in a case involving allegations of sexual misconduct. Fed. R. Evid. 412. The rule “aims to safeguard the alleged victim against the invasion of privacy, potential embarrassment and sexual stereotyping that is associated with public disclosure of intimate sexual details.” Fed. R. Evid. 412 Advisory Comm. Notes.
Blanket Exclusion of Victims’ Sexual History
Under Rule 412, at least five circuits have held that blanket exclusion of victims’ sexual histories in sex trafficking cases does not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights.
- United States v. Lockhart, 844 F.3d 501, 510 (5th Cir. 2016) (describing evidence of victims’ prostitution experience as “irrelevant” because it did not indicate whether defendants “caused their victims to engage in a commercial sex act”);
- United States v. Gemma, 818 F.3d 23, 34 (1st Cir. 2016) (finding no constitutional violation when considering the possible probative and prejudicial weight of the court’s decision);
- United States v. Rivera, 799 F.3d 180, 186 (2d Cir. 2015) (holding no violation because desired cross-examination evidence would have been irrelevant);
- United States v. Roy, 781 F.3d 416, 421 (8th Cir. 2015) (finding no abuse of discretion in exclusion for several reasons);
- United States v. Cephus, 684 F.3d 703, 708 (7th Cir. 2012) (considering irrelevant a history of commercial sex work when the issue is whether the defendant beat and threatened the victim in the present case).
A Questionable Balancing Test
In Maynes, the Fourth Circuit, in uniformity with other circuits, noted the trial court’s broad discretion to limit cross-examination and highlighted the minimal relevance of the victims’ sexual histories to the question of fraud or coercion. In contrast, the Fourth Circuit then held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in “balancing” the probative value of specific pieces of sexual history evidence against concerns about jury confusion, witness harassment, and prejudice. The Fourth Circuit described the lower court’s “careful” weighing of evidence and selective exclusion of only the questioning “most likely to lead to fruitless fishing expeditions.” Instead of barring all evidence of victims’ past sexual histories under Rule 412, the Fourth Circuit highlighted the district’s court important role in weighing the probative versus prejudicial value of the evidence to determine whether the evidence was admissible.
A Path Forward
Prior to Maynes, an almost per se rule on the irrelevancy of commercial sex work history to the question of “force, fraud, and coercion” in sex trafficking cases seemed to be developing. Maynes and its approval of trial court “balancing” could be a step backwards for victims of sex trafficking. Given the continued lack of connection between victims’ sexual history and defendants’ affirmative acts of coercion, such evidence is properly excluded and Maynes should remain an outlier among circuit court cases.
- 1 Bonner and Randall were sentenced to 30 years and 25 years in prison, respectively. U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Virginia, Leader of Violent Sex Trafficking Ring Sentenced to 35 Years (Nov. 4, 2016), https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/leader-violent-sex-trafficking-ring-sentenced-35-years.
- 2 Carson, United States v. Maynes, 880 F.3d 110 (4th Cir. 2018).