CINCINNATI – A federal appeals panel has upheld the convictions and sentences of a couple charged with enslaving a mentally disabled woman in their northeast Ohio home for nearly two years through intimidation, threats and abuse.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati agreed unanimously Tuesday that the federal charges were appropriate and that the prison sentences of at least three decades each were warranted.
A federal jury in Youngstown convicted Jessica Hunt and boyfriend Jordie Callahan last year on counts of forced labor, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to illegally obtain prescription drugs.
Among other challenges in their appeal, the couple contended that the case should have been a state matter since federal forced labor prosecutions typically involve people brought to the U.S. for domestic servitude or sex trade.
The woman "was compelled to perform domestic labor and run errands for defendants by force, the threat of force, and the threat of abuse of legal process," Judge Eric Clay wrote.
"Because this is a distinct harm that is a matter of federal concern pursuant to the Thirteen Amendment, it matters little that defendants' conduct may have also violated various state laws," Clay wrote, citing the U.S. constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.
The couple was accused of holding the woman captive from early 2011 to late 2012. Prosecutors alleged that they threatened to harm the woman's young daughter if the woman did not do chores, shop and clean up after their pit bull dogs. The couple also used the dogs and a python to threaten the woman into complying, prosecutors said.
The couple's attorneys argued the government used unreliable witnesses, including the victim in the case, who suffers from the effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a car accident. They said she had had numerous opportunities to tell other people she was being mistreated.
Ed Bryan, a federal public defender who represents Hunt and argued the appeal, said further appeals to the full circuit court and Supreme Court, if necessary, are likely.
"We're extremely disappointed and frustrated," Bryan said.
He called the forced labor charge "an overreach," and said the panel's ruling relied on claims by prosecutors that the defendants dispute.
After the woman was caught stealing a candy bar in late 2012, she told police she wanted to go to jail because people were being mean to her. Prosecutors said the couple lured her into the home knowing she received government assistance.
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