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A Child Sex Crime Sting that Did Not Work

A judge in Syracuse earlier this summer ruled that a defendant charged with a federal sex crime should be acquitted because even though the defendant went to meet the phony “minor” (an undercover state trooper) at a mall, there was not enough evidence to show that he intended to try to have illegal sexual contact with the minor.

Michael Mahannah was charged with the sex offense after an investigator posed as a twelve-year-old boy and began sending him enticing text messages. The investigator pretended to be an underage boy named “Brett,” and started talking about sex. He continued the conversation for six hours even after Mahannah indicated that he wasn’t interested. The defendant agreed to meet only after “Brett” asked about oral sex a half-dozen times.

Mahannah told police that he was not planning to have sex with the boy, but would have told him in person that he should not solicit sex and that doing so is dangerous — not a defense that usually has much traction. Police unsurprisingly did not buy it: they arrested Mahannah and charged him with attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, a federal sex crime that carries a ten year mandatory minimum sentence.

But Mahannah went to trial and won. After the government finished presenting its case, Mahannah moved Judge David N. Hurd to dismiss the charge outright. In order to drop the charge against Mahannah, the judge had to find that no reasonable jury could find Mahannah guilty, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government.

That was the case here, Judge Hurd wrote in an unpublished opinion, because no reasonable jury could have found that the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mahannah attempted to persuade, induce, entice, or coerce a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity, as required by the statute.

The text messages were not enough, Judge Hurd explained. First, the investigator “initiated the contact with Mahannah and defendant initially pretended to be someone else. Second, the investigator initiated all of the instances where items of a sexual nature were discussed. For example, ‘Brett’ asks ‘r u still into guys? I still am!’ and ‘U hook up a lot?’ and states that he is ‘into older guys.’ After a meeting was arranged, the investigator inquired what defendant wanted to do numerous times and was the first to suggest ‘adult stuff’ and oral sex. Third, some of the texts sent by defendant indicate defendant’s lack of interest in interacting with the child, even though he continued to do so.”

Judge Hurd concluded that, “once the suggestive influence of the investigator was removed, there is no evidence that the defendant had any intent to persuade a minor or engage in the proposed sexual activity.”

Kudos to Lisa Peebles and Randi Juda Bianco of the Office of the Federal Defender for making good law in an area rife with government overreach.

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