Wednesday, October 28, 2009


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BDSM case goes to the Supreme Court

cross-posted from hunter of justice

The US Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case involving the seemingly technical but highly important question of when a criminal conviction can be overturned based on the possibility that it was based on conduct that occurred before any law made it illegal. While the case is already generating headlines, you are not likely to hear a great deal about the Ex Post Facto Clause issue at the heart of the appeal. Instead, media coverage has and presumably will continue to focus on the involvement of both the defendant and the complainant in the case in the BDSM subculture.

The prosecution and conviction in United States v. Marcus shocked many people, not least members of the BDSM (bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadomasochism) community, who alternately condemned the defendant for violating the moral standards of the community and worried that they too could be at risk. Glenn Marcus and the woman identified in court records only as Jodi met in 1998 and began what the prosecution conceded was initially a consensual “Master/slave” relationship. A year later, however (the State contended), the relationship became non-consensual because of Marcus’s cruelty and threats, and Jodi was blackmailed into remaining in the relationship by his threats of showing explicit photos of their activities to Jodi’s family. Marcus’s defense vigorously contested the charges, which turned on Jodi’s testimony that she withdrew her consent and only continued the relationship out of fear. Marcus was convicted of forced labor and sex trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, based on Marcus’s sexual and BDSM activities with Jodi and on forcing Jodi to work on maintaining his BDSM website.

The Second Circuit overturned Marcus’s convictions, saying that because the government built its case largely on events that occurred before the TVPA’s enactment, and the trial judge failed to instruct the jury on the matter, it was at least possible that the verdict was based conduct that was not a federal crime when it occurred. (Notably, then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion suggesting that the relevant circuit precedents were at odds with Supreme Court precedent. Sotomayor has now recused herself from the case.) Accordingly, Marcus was entitled to a new trial, focusing exclusively on whether Marcus coerced and abused Jodi in late 2000 and 2001. The Supreme Court will now decide whether a conviction can be reversed based only on a possibility, as opposed to a likelihood, that it was based on pre-enactment conduct, and thus whether the new trial will proceed. Although it is the Court’s job to focus on the specific legal questions presented to it, some members of the Court will likely be unable to resist delving into the morality and legality of BDSM. The legal arguments and media coverage of the case, therefore, should be digested with the following in mind:

Marcus’s conviction turned on the question of consent. Marcus’s defense has contended throughout that he has been imprisoned for consensual BDSM activities, and that Jodi, on whose testimony the whole case hinged, brought a false case to prosecutors, long after the fact, because of a dispute over pictures of her on Marcus’s website. By contrast, the prosecution contended that this was a case about a relationship that began consensually but turned into something different and criminal. At the urging of the defense, the court’s jury instructions specified that the terms “physical restraint,” “threats of serious harm,” “force” and “coercion” in the federal statute must be interpreted so as to exclude consensual BDSM conduct. 487 F.Supp.2d 289 (E.D.N.Y. 2007). While the very idea of consensual BDSM, and the distinction between a consensual “Master/slave” relationship and actual captivity and abuse, may have been difficult for jurors to comprehend, the jury convicted Marcus in light of these instructions and the trial court found the evidence sufficient to uphold the verdict in light of this interpretation of the law. Marcus has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, and accordingly the factual question of consent is now closed, as far as the courts are concerned.

The most sensationalized facts of the case actually involved consensual activity. Jury instructions notwithstanding, the prosecution and the press certainly capitalized on every available detail to paint a picture of a depraved abuser. In particular, press accounts emphasized that Marcus whipped Jodi, cut the word “slave” onto her stomach with a knife, shaved her head and branded her with his initial. However, Jodi testified and the government conceded that these activities were consensual, occurring before she moved to Maryland to be closer to Marcus and months before she became afraid and wanted to leave him. While cutting and branding may seem extreme to some, there is nothing inherently abusive about these activities. What shows Marcus to be an abuser and a criminal, if that is what he is, is not the physical things he did but that did them through force and coercion rather than mutual consent.

From the start, Marcus crossed lines within the BDSM community. Though Marcus has been publicly defended by personal friends in the BDSM community, the community as a whole has been ambivalent toward the case. Marcus’s approach to M/s relationships, as detailed in the trial record, included notions of “consensual non-consent” and “no-limits submission” that are controversial within the community. That is, Marcus made it known that once a woman had committed to his service, he would ignore her objections to specific activities or requests to leave. According to the trial record, Marcus used threats of blackmail to manipulate Jodi, and at one point instructed Jodi to entice her sister to visit and to drug her so Marcus could rape her (she refused). Some community members have suggested that the Marcus case may illustrate the legal boundaries of responsible BDSM, with “safe, sane and consensual” BDSM clearly protected by the law, and practitioners of “consensual non-consent” acting at their own risk.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. Marcus (case no. 08-1341) early next year.