Ghost Scam Trial: Closing Arguments Pit Charges of Greed Against Human Trafficking Defense
The verdict of the ghost scam trial will come down to the why -- the what is undisputed.
On November 10, 2012, the four defendants scammed a woman out of $50,000 by tricking her into thinking that a spirit would kill her son, and that the only way to save him would be to perform a ceremony that involved putting all of her money into a bag for a blessing.
The defendants admit as much. So, as closing arguments began on Wednesday, the prosecution and defense teams each worked to convince the jury to believe their own version for why the defendants stole that money: it was out of callous greed or it was out of fear that a loved one would be killed.
The defendants have claimed that they were victims of human trafficking. Their testimonies told similar tales: family financial problems, borrowing money from a Chinese criminal organization, loan sharks threatening to kill their loved ones if the defendants did not repay the money. The crime group then told the defendants to go to America, where they would work off their debts, the attorneys alleged. That work, the defendants would learn, was to commit the scam. Any resistance, they believed, and the mafia group would fulfill their frightening promise -- an ocean away from their family, the defendants had no choice but to follow the orders.
"What happened on November 10 was the culmination of a long process," defense attorney Sam Lasser said in his closing argument. "A process of debt bondage, deceit, violence, threats, intimidation."
The defense team listed the people associated with the crime group, who each played a role in coercing the defendants to commit the scam. These were real people, the defense reminded the jurors, and the six faces were displayed on poster board for all to see.
The defendants committed their crime out of necessity, the attorneys argued. They made a decision a reasonable person would make facing such a stark choice, Lasser declared: "You can do the scam, or you can collect your son's corpse in China."
Because the accused are using an "out of necessity" defense, the burden of proof is on them to prove that they "more likely than not" committed the crime out of necessity.
The ultimate question is whether those faces on the poster board are captors or teammates. Much of the evidence supporting these claims of human trafficking lay only within the defendants' testimonies. So, as prosecutor Michael Sullivan said in his closing argument, key elements of this case "clearly depend upon the credibility of the witnesses that testified before you."
Those witnesses, Sullivan argued, should not have any credibility: "these are the same people ... who lied to commit the scam." He charged that their testimonies were no more valid than the ghost story they told their victim.
"They made up a story," he told the jurors. "A story based on lies."
He rattled off the numerous international trips each defendant had made in recent years -- mostly to Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia -- in an effort to suggest that they had been committing the crime around the Pacific for years.
It is a case of two competing narratives, each based on circumstantial facts and personal testimonies. And it will come down to whether or not the jurors believe the defendants' stories, which can be neither confirmed nor refuted.
Defense attorney Richard Shikman put it best when he told the jury, "That's for you to decide, whether this story is totally bogus."
Closing arguments are expected to conclude on Thursday.