United States v. Dickey

Docket Number21-2522
Decision Date28 October 2022
Citation52 F.4th 680
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Tracie DICKEY, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Brian J. Kerwin, Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Michael I. Leonard, Attorney, Leonard Trial Lawyers, Chicago, IL, Sami Ziad Azhari, Attorney, Azhari, LLC, Chicago, IL, Kelsey Hipp Killion, Attorney, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before Wood, St. Eve, and Jackson-Akiwumi, Circuit Judges.

St. Eve, Circuit Judge.

Tracie Dickey built a following as the leader of her own church, Deliverance Tabernacle Ministries International. She claimed to be a prophet who received commands from God. Her worshipers (in reality, victims) had to live in church space and work several jobs. All money earned went to Dickey, who used the funds to pay for personal expenses. She used physical and mental coercion to ensure compliance with her demands.

Having been convicted of one count of wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1343, and one count of forced labor, 18 U.S.C. § 1589, for her actions, Dickey timely filed this appeal. She challenges three of the district court's rulings: the denial of her fourth motion to continue her trial, the rejection of a proposed jury instruction regarding religious liberty, and the imposition of restitution ordering her to pay for future mental health treatment for her victims. We now affirm.

I. Background
A. Deliverance Tabernacle Ministries

As early as 2009, Tracey Dickey recruited followers for her church, Deliverance Tabernacle Ministries International ("DTM"). As four former congregants explained, Dickey's recruitment followed a pattern: through her proselytizing, Dickey groomed vulnerable victims and forced them to disavow their families, live in the church, and work multiple fulltime jobs. The victims would then give Dickey all their wages, which she would keep for herself. She required multiple victims to find employment at Hyatt hotels, where Dickey forced them to falsify reservation bookings, thereby fraudulently misdirecting kickbacks to Dickey's own travel company. If someone disobeyed, Dickey threatened them with violence and required them to be homeless until she considered them redeemed. All told, her scheme netted $1.5 million, most of which came from DTM members. She spent over $1 million on personal expenses, such as travel, rental and vacation properties, and luxury hotels.

On July 26, 2016, the government indicted Dickey on three counts of wire fraud and one count of obtaining forced labor, though the government later dropped two of the wire fraud charges. Count One charged Dickey with wire fraud as part of the Hyatt hotels kickback scheme. Count Four charged Dickey with obtaining forced labor of a victim by threatening her with serious harm and physical restraint to force her to participate in the scheme.

B. Procedural History

During the pretrial proceedings, Dickey's relationship with her attorneys was tumultuous. In total, she changed defense counsel six times and the court granted her three continuances.

Dickey was on her third attorney when the district court scheduled her first trial date for April 23, 2018. This date gave the defense almost a full year to prepare. But two months before the trial, Dickey filed a motion for new counsel; she wanted to hire two attorneys, one of whom assured the district court that the team would be trial-ready in April. With the caveat that the trial would not be continued because of the change, the court granted the motion to retain counsel.

Only a few weeks later, Dickey's new counsel moved to withdraw and the court reappointed her prior counsel. The district court continued the trial, over the government's objection, to September 4, 2018, rearranging its schedule to accommodate Dickey. The district court warned Dickey, however, that the new trial date was firm and it would not grant another continuance.

But still, less than a month before the trial began, Dickey's most recent attorney asked for another continuance. She said that Dickey had recently informed her of witnesses warranting further investigation. The district court was skeptical, noting that Dickey had known about these witnesses all along and had clearly waited until the eleventh hour to inform her attorney about them. It also emphasized the emotional burden another continuance placed on the testifying victims. Nonetheless, the court continued the trial a second time to October 9, 2018.

After only another week, Dickey's counsel sought to withdraw because Dickey had filed an ethics complaint against her. The court appointed standby counsel, but shortly thereafter, Dickey retained a new attorney, Victor Henderson, who filed an appearance and moved for another continuance. Despite the earlier warnings, the district court granted Henderson's motion to continue the trial and set the trial date for February 4, 2019, giving the defense about four months to prepare. The court warned Henderson in no uncertain terms that if this was not enough time, he should not take Dickey's case, because the court would not be moving the trial a fourth time. In the face of this warning, Henderson agreed to represent Dickey and the case moved forward.

Henderson tried to continue the trial twice more, but the district court stood firm on the February date. The judge reminded Henderson that he had taken on the case with the explicit warning that the February trial date would not move; the court explained that it had arranged other criminal trials around Dickey's; and at any rate, it noted that the testimony of the expert whom Dickey wanted a continuance to hire would not be admissible at trial. Dickey wanted to present expert testimony on whether the victims "voluntarily subjected themselves" to poor treatment. But the judge reasoned that whether the victims acted voluntarily was a fact question for the jury, not one for an expert to decide. The trial went forward on February 4, 2019, as scheduled, with Henderson as Dickey's counsel.

C. Trial and Sentencing

Four victims and former DTM congregants—A.A., S.W., L.H., and K.H.—testified at trial. In addition, several Hyatt employees and two FBI investigators testified about the fraud scheme. Dickey called four witnesses, current DTM members, who explained that they joined the church freely and could leave at any time. They claimed to have given money to Dickey willingly and without reservation.

Prior to deliberations, the district court instructed the jury about the elements of wire fraud and forced labor. Dickey requested, and the district court permitted, an instruction that the jury should not be influenced "by any person's religion" in deciding the case. Dickey requested an additional instruction:

You should not consider the ways in which the Defendant exercised or practiced her religion in determining whether she is guilty of these charges. All individuals have a right to the free exercise of religion.

The district court declined to give this instruction. Dickey was allowed to make the argument in closing, but the district court explained that Dickey's proposed instruction risked confusing the jury by suggesting that religion can act as a "shield or ... trump[ ] the statute, which it does not." In closing, the government argued that the jury should not let Dickey "hide behind her religion ... [or] the concept of free will that she full well knows that she undermined with years and years of abuse." Defense counsel argued the opposite, that each purported victim had acted of her own volition in furtherance of her religious beliefs. "That's what's great about America," he explained, "[y]ou can go to whatever kind of church you want to, or you don't have to go at all. But it's your choice .... If you don't like your church, you leave." The jury convicted Dickey on both counts.

At the sentencing hearing, Dickey expressed little remorse. Rather, she explained that her "words, actions, or intentions were incorrectly perceived or misconstrued by others." A.A., S.W., L.H., and K.H. again testified at the hearing about their harrowing experiences with Dickey. S.W. equated her decade at DTM to "psychological bondage" that afflicted her with anxiety and paranoia. As a result, she suffers from panic attacks, thoughts of suicide, and the constant feeling of being burdened by her past. A.A. compared DTM to "Heaven's Gate," a cult that led its members to mass suicide, and Dickey to Jim Jones, another infamous cult leader. K.H. described her own "psychological scars," and L.H. recounted how her knees became permanently damaged from the miles she had to walk after Dickey took her car as punishment. The district court sentenced Dickey to 144 months' imprisonment on each count to run concurrently and three years' supervised release.

The court also held a special hearing to consider restitution. The government presented the testimony and expert report of Dr. Diana Goldstein, a clinical neuropsychologist with expertise in trauma-related disorders. Dr. Goldstein described the causes and symptoms of stress disorders like complex PTSD. She then noted, based on a victim impact summary provided by the government, aspects of the victims' pathologies that aligned with trauma and stress disorders. Dr. Goldstein also provided a letter with a range of treatment costs associated with complex PTSD, which supported the government's estimate of therapy costs at $12,714 per victim. The district court ordered Dickey to pay restitution in the amount of $1.14 million, including the figure of $12,714 for the cost of each victim's future mental health treatment.

II. Analysis

Dickey filed this appeal to challenge her conviction and sentence. She argues that the district court erred when it refused to continue her trial for a fourth time, when it denied her proposed jury instruction on religious liberty, and when it ordered restitution based on Dr. Goldstein's testimony.


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