United States v. Nichols, No. 15 CR 756-1

CourtUnited States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
Writing for the CourtHon. Virginia M. Kendall
Docket NumberNo. 15 CR 756-1
Decision Date31 January 2019


No. 15 CR 756-1


January 31, 2019

Hon. Virginia M. Kendall


Defendant Samuel Nichols was charged by Superseding Indictment with conspiring to engage in sex trafficking by force, threats of force, fraud, and coercion in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1594(c) (Count 1) and six counts of sex trafficking force, threats of force, and coercion in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591(a) and (b)(1) (Counts 2-4, 6-8). (Dkt. 51). Following a two-week trial, a jury convicted Nichols of Counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8; he was acquitted on Count 7. (Dkt. 267). Nichols has filed a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal Notwithstanding the Verdict, or Alternatively, Motion for New Trial. (Dkt. 279); see also (Dkt. 294). For the reasons explained below, Nichols's Motion is denied. The jury's verdict stands.


On December 29, 2015, the government filed a two-count Complaint against Nichols, who is also known by the nickname "Buck" and "Kash." (Dkt. 1). Nichols was taken into federal custody in Tennessee (where he was being held on unrelated state charges) on January 5, 2016 and transferred to Illinois. (Dkts. 7, 40). On February 3, 2016, the grand jury returned a four-count Indictment (Dkt. 21), and on April 6, 2016, the grand jury returned an eight-count Superseding Indictment against Nichols and Fears. (Dkt. 51). At the outset of the proceedings, Nichols was appointed counsel: James Graham. After the Superseding Indictment was filed, and based upon

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appointed counsel's concerns about the volume of evidence and the sensitive nature of the evidence which included the victimization of minors, the Court appointed a second attorney: Heather Winslow. (Dkts. 83, 86). Counsel litigated several pretrial motions, including a motion to dismiss the Superseding Indictment for violations of the Speedy Trial Act, which they presented at Nichols's insistence. (Dkt. 91). Recognizing their ethical duty not to present invalid legal arguments to the Court, the attorneys sought leave to file the motion, in which they provided the cases correctly stating the law. See id. at 1. The Court denied the motion in a written order. (Dkt. 123).

As a result of this episode, Nichols demanded appointment of new counsel, arguing that his appointed attorneys were working against his interests and he could not work with them. See, e.g., (Dkt. 129) (Nichols's ex parte motion alleging that his attorneys were not effectively representing him because they were not further challenging the indictment); (Dkt. 142); (Dkt. 211); (Dkt. 213). Finding that there was no direct conflict of interest in that the attorneys presented Nichols' motion to the Court and correctly cited the law as they must, the Court denied Nichols request for a third attorney. Eventually, Nichols began to refuse to work with his attorneys and the Court granted counsel leave to withdraw due to irreconcilable differences but required that they stay on as stand-by counsel (Dkts. 137, 297); the Court denied Nichols's repeated demands for a third appointed attorney. See, e.g., (Dkt. 226). The Court gave Nichols numerous warnings about proceeding pro se at trial, but he adamantly refused to work with stand-by counsel. Due to these and other issues, the Court extended the trial date by more than five months to allow Nichols adequate time for trial preparation. (Dkt. 165). Leading up to trial, Nichols's in-court behavior deteriorated and at times the Court had to order the U.S. Marshals to bring Nichols to court using whatever force necessary. See (Dkt. 242). As relevant to the arguments below, the proceedings

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continued and on March 1, 2018, the Court conducted a competency hearing, which involved the testimony of two evaluating psychologists and other evidence. See (Dkt. 310) (Competency Hearing Tr.). At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court found Nichols competent to stand trial. Id.; (Dkt. 242).

Two weeks prior to the trial date, Fears pled guilty to one count of conspiring with Nichols and Brandon Wright1 to engage in sex trafficking by force, threats of force, fraud, and coercion and one count of sex trafficking of Minor B (Ciara). (Dkts. 233, 236). Unlike Fears, Nichols proceeded to trial on March 12, 2018 and represented himself against the seven charges against him. During the first two trial days, Nichols participated in the proceedings until the afternoon when, after receiving numerous warnings, he was removed on account of outbursts and other improper behavior. See, e.g., (Dkt. 289) (3/12/18 to 3/26/18 Trial Transcript excluding Voir Dire, hereinafter "Tr.") at 191.2 After he was removed, he was placed in a satellite courtroom with a live video and audio feed of the proceedings with one stand-by counsel; the other stand-by counsel assumed representation. After these first two days, however, Nichols controlled his behavior enough to remain in the courtroom and participate fully in trial until it concluded on March 26, 2018. Notably, Nichols repeatedly conferred with stand-by counsel throughout and they stepped up as regular counsel only when he was removed from the courtroom or at other critical junctures, such as moving to dismiss, participating in the jury instruction conference, and questioning Nichols when he testified in his defense at Nichols' request. See id. at 1457-74, 1478-1539, 1657-1714.

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At trial, although Nichols admitted that he managed escorts, he argued that he did not force the women and girls to do anything—they choose to prostitute and they always had the option to leave him. Regarding the ability of the women and girls to pick up and leave, the government presented evidence that they lacked money, housing, and support and that they were in a relationship with Nichols which was both abusive and controlling. The government presented the testimony of an expert witness that victims of sex trafficking often choose to stay with their traffickers because they do not have anywhere else to go and the psychological control of the trafficker keeps them compliant. In addition, this expert witness testified as to the various restraints that sex traffickers use to keep victims from leaving, including psychological restraints, like intimidation, threats, and manipulation. The manipulation can include romance and false promises of a better future for the victims. Here, the government also presented evidence that Nichols made various promises to the women involved (for example, to help them get an apartment or regain custody of children) and that he fostered intimate relationships with the women as a way to control them.

In addition, the government presented evidence that Nichols maintained a culture of fear in his business as another means of control. Nichols admitted to physically abusing various women and girls, but he argued that all of the violence was related to personal matters, not business—that is, prostitution. Here, the government introduced evidence that Nichols had certain rules for the women and girls who worked for him—rules related to prostituting. When those rules were broken, such as when one of the women texted another pimp or when the women slept through calls from potential customers, Nichols beat them. In addition, the government presented testimony from each victim-witness that Nichols frequently physically abused other women and girls in their presence. Regardless of the reason for the abuse, the victims testified that it made

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them fearful and compliant with his business rules so that they might avoid physical abuse directed towards them or towards others—who were oftentimes their friends.

As to the conspiracy, Nichols argued that he did not have an agreement with anyone—not Fears and not Wright—to commit sex trafficking. If anything, he and Fears engaged in similar, but separate, businesses. The government, however, introduced evidence that Nichols and Fears together recruited women and girls to join their violent sex-trafficking enterprise, some of the woman and girls worked for Nichols and then Fears (or vice versa) especially when one of the two was incarcerated or otherwise unable to "manage," they traveled around the Chicagoland area and the country (often times driven by Wright) with these women and girls and usually one if not both men stayed at the hotels with the women, and they shared the money the women made from engaging in commercial sex acts. Further, the government presented evidence about how Wright drove the women and girls to hotels, strip clubs, and outcalls (or trips to engage in commercial sex acts at a customer's house) at Nichols's direction and also to purchase supplies and food for the women and girls as well as the Visa gift cards that Nichols used to purchase the ads he ran on Backpage.com—a website used for advertising commercial sex acts that is hosted on servers maintained outside of Illinois. For these tasks, Nichols paid Wright at a daily or weekly rate, depending on how much money Nichols was making from the women and girls at that time.

After deliberating, the jury convicted Nichols of one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and five substantive counts of sex trafficking under 18 U.S.C. § 1591. He was acquitted of one count of sex trafficking.3 After trial, Nichols agreed to work with counsel and they were reappointed. (Dkts. 271, 273). Through counsel, Nichols now moves for judgment of acquittal,

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see Fed. R. Crim. P. 29, or alternatively, for a new trial, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. Nichols raises multiple (at times duplicative) grounds in support of a judgment of acquittal or a new trial, which amount to the following 18 objections, listed in chronological order:

1. the Court erred in denying Nichols's motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds, (Dkt. 279) at (1)(b);

2. the Court erred in denying Nichols's motions for

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