A sex trafficker who beat and tortured his teenage victims wants an appeals panel to overturn part of a $773,000 restitution award that would go to a victim who refused to participate in his trial.
ATLANTA (CN) — A Florida sex trafficker currently serving five life sentences for using violent beatings, isolation and constant surveillance to force his underage victims into prostitution says he shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution to a victim who refused to participate in his criminal trial.
Florida public defender Gail Stage told a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit on Wednesday that Alston Williams should not have to pay $221,000 of a $773,600 restitution award to a victim he forced into prostitution when she was 17 years old. Williams appealed to the Atlanta-based court after his convictions for sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking by force were upheld by a Florida district court.
“The facts are really ugly,” Stage admitted during oral arguments in a virtual hearing.
For more than 13 years, Williams snared teenage victims by feigning romantic interest in them, manipulated them into dropping out of school and forced them to prostitute themselves daily under threats of extreme violence.
Williams controlled his victims’ every movement, beat them, and forced them to see as many as 20 clients a day. He then used their earnings to finance a lavish lifestyle for himself, buying two large homes, luxury cars and a closet full of designer clothes.
Court documents show that Williams subjected his victims – one of whom was just 16 years old – to a litany of horrors.
He coerced victims into tattooing his name on their bodies, starved one victim until she fell into a diabetic coma, stuck needles under the fingernails of one victim and forced another to have multiple unwanted plastic surgeries so he could charge more money for her as a prostitute.
Williams also repeatedly impregnated his victims and forced them to have abortions.
Now, he says he shouldn’t have to pay restitution under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to a victim referred to in court records as DR who did not wish to participate in the trial.
“It’s important to note that DR chose not to participate in any way in this case,” Stage argued Wednesday. “She made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with the case and made it clear she wanted nothing to do with any order of restitution.”
A Florida federal judge upheld the restitution order, finding that DR never renounced restitution.
DR was 17 years old when she met Williams. She also experienced extreme violence at his hands, including beatings and one instance when Williams tied her up, stuffed her into the trunk of his car, and drove around for an hour while she screamed.
U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, pushed back on Stage’s arguments, pointing out that the law is written to “reflect the unique situation of sex trafficking victims” who may not want to be involved in legal proceedings “after they’ve been terrorized for years.”
“The statute’s allowance that victims need not participate in restitution proceedings – isn’t that a reflection of congressional recognition that sex trafficking victims are notoriously traumatized and have a difficult time sometimes even testifying?” Grant asked.
Stage argued that under the law, courts should assume that a victim who chooses not to participate in the proceedings also does not want any part in the restitution.
“You make a good point that it’s pretty clear the victim doesn’t want to participate,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Brasher, another Trump appointee. “But if we follow your logic about where the line is, it seems like we’re almost requiring the victim to participate because the victim either has to say ‘I do want the restitution’ or ‘I don’t want the restitution.’”
But even if the victim had renounced the restitution award, an attorney for the government told the panel that the district court was still correct in ordering the payment.
“By its clear statutory language, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is mandatory and without exception is not predicated on victim assent or participation and is punitive in purpose,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Mariani said. “The victim’s level of interest in the restitution is frankly irrelevant under the clear statutory language.”
Brasher said the case presented “a tricky issue.”
“One point of order in restitution is to provide money to the victims, but restitution in the criminal context is also a form of punishment onto the offender. So doesn’t it make sense to say that you have to enforce the restitution whether the victim wants it or not?” the judge asked.
Stage responded that the primary goal of restitution is remedial or compensatory, though she conceded that “it serves some punitive purpose.”
Brasher and Grant were joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin, a Barack Obama appointee. The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling in the case.