For the defendants in the ghost scam trial to be acquitted, their lawyers must prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that they committed their crimes "out of necessity." "Preponderance of evidence," jurors are told, "means that you must be persuaded that the things the defendant seeks to prove are probably more true than not true."
The "out of necessity" argument is this: The four defendants are victims of human trafficking, coerced by a Chinese criminal organization to commit the crimes in order to repay their debts -- if they resisted, family members would be killed. There are no audio recordings or third-party witnesses to affirm or refute a good deal of this chain of events. Crucial events happened across the Pacific Ocean, involving people effectively impossible to reel into an American court room. For much of the defense's narrative, the testimonies of the defendants will be all the jury has to go on. So, to a significant degree, the verdict becomes a matter of believing or not believing the accused.
Which leads us to the inevitable question that serves as the defense team's primary hurdle: if these people were able to trick a victim into believing that the only way to save her son from death is to place her life savings into a bag for a blessing, why wouldn't they be able to trick a jury into believing that they're victims of human trafficking, coerced by a Chinese criminal organization to commit the crimes in order to repay their debts?
On Thursday, prosecutor Michael Sullivan pulled this question into the spotlight, countering the human trafficking defense with an offensive seeking to portray the defendants as willing participants in an international scam ring.
"What were you taught to say if you were ever caught?" he asked M.W., the third defendant to testify this week (because there's a chance these folks are human trafficking victims, we'll redact their names for the time being).
They weren't taught anything for that, she said through a translator -- meaning the alleged organized crime associate who taught them the script for the scam did not give them a script for when or if they got arrested.
Sullivan's cross-examination focused on M.W.'s passport -- specifically, her frequent travels through Asia over past several years. Paging through her passport stamps, the prosecutor listed off her trips. To Indonesia in April 2007; to Malaysia and Singapore in May 2007; to Indonesia in April and May 2011; then again in November of that year. And then Malaysia that December, Brunei in February 2012, and Malaysia again in March.
With the set-up complete, he fired the question: "Isn't it true that you have been flying around the world committing this scam over the last five years?"
"No, it's not true," she responded through the interpreter.
And then he sought to raise doubts to her timeline -- an effort to undermine the credibility of her story. She had said that the criminal organization had come to her home in April 2011, armed with weapons, to threaten her husband for his gambling debts. Upon questioning, she noted that this visit had taken place soon after she returned from an Indonesia trip. Which would have been in May. So was it April or May? Sullivan queried.
"I don't remember if it was April or May," she answered. "I don't remember the exact date."
Had she been caught in a lie or honestly misremembered the specific month of a two-year-old incident? Such is the quandary facing the jury -- how much to believe the defendants' stories without much available evidence confirming or denying their veracity. It's a quandary that was further highlighter when M.W. had the chance to explain the purpose of her travels.
When her attorney Sam Lasser began his re-direct examination, following Sullivan's questions, he asked her about her husband's domestic violence and infidelity. Some of the trips out of China were for business (she owned a store that sold various goods: rice, for a time, then eye glasses, then automobile parts), she testified, and some were just because she wanted to get away from her husband.
The defense team's case continues this week.