United States v. Alston Williams (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Federal Docket

August 18, 2021

Evidence/Rule 403 – Graphic images and videos of victims in a sex trafficking case are not unduly prejudicial where they are relevant and jurors are pre-screened as to whether such images would affect their ability to be fair and impartial.

Sex Trafficking – Evidence of a defendant’s use of violence against his victims in a sex trafficking case is sufficient to show that the defendant knew the victims were being forced to engage in commercial sex acts.

Restitution – A victim’s disclaimer of a restitution aware does not negate a district court’s obligation to award restitution or the defendant’s obligation to pay restitution.

Following a jury trial, Alston Williams was convicted of two counts of sex trafficking minors, three counts of sex trafficking adults, and one count of obstructing a human trafficking investigation. He was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment and ordered to pay restitution to three of his victims.

On appeal of his convictions, Williams argued that nude images and videos of the victims should have been excluded under Rule 403, that there was insufficient evidence on the mens rea element with respect to one of the victims, and that he was entitled to a jury instruction that a victim’s consent to perform a sex act is a defense to sex trafficking.

Reviewing the 403 claim and the jury instruction claim for an abuse of discretion and the mens rea issue de novo, the 11th Circuit upheld Williams’s convictions. The images and videos were unsurprisingly graphic due to the nature of the case, but they were not unduly prejudicial because the jurors were prescreened as to whether they would affect their ability to be fair and impartial. Te Court held the evidence was sufficient to show that Williams’ knew all of the victims’ ages as well. Regarding Williams’ argument that the victims had consented to the sexual activities, , the Court held that the evidence of his violence towards the victims was sufficient to show that he knew they were being forced to engage in commercial sex acts. Finally, Williams’s requested jury instruction was not a correct statement of the law, and to the extent that it was, it was redundant and not required.

Williams also appealed his sentence, arguing that it was substantively unreasonable, and that the restitution was miscalculated. The 11th Circuit rejected these claims as well, upholding the sentence. The restitution was based on credible evidence that provided a reasonable and reliable estimate of the victims’ losses, and it could not be permissibly adjusted by their living expenses.

The Court also held that restitution cannot be opted-out of by victims, meaning a victim’s disclaimer of a restitution amount does not negate the district court’s obligation to order restitution. The length of Williams’s sentence was reasonable in light of the particularly heinous circumstances of the crimes.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida
Opinion by Grant, joined by Martin and Brasher

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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