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United States v. Eason

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 21, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Nicole C. Eason, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued February 23, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 15-CR-20015 - James E. Shadid, Chief Judge.

          Before Posner, Easterbrook, and Manion, Circuit Judges.

          POSNER, Circuit Judge.

         Nicole Eason and her husband Calvin Eason were indicted on two counts of kidnapping (one for each child kidnapped), in violation of a federal statute that so far as relates to this case punishes "(a) Whoever unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person, except in the case of a minor by the parent thereof, when-(1) the person is willfully transported in interstate or foreign commerce." 18 U.S.C. § 1201. The Ea-sons were indicted in a third count of violating another federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a), by transporting one of the children across state lines intending that the child "engage in ... sexual activity" forbidden by Illinois law.

         Calvin Eason pleaded guilty to all three counts; Nicole went to trial and the jury convicted her of all counts as well. The judge sentenced each defendant to 20 years in prison on each of the kidnapping counts and 40 years on the transportation-for-sexual-activity count, the sentences to run concurrently, making the total sentence for each defendant 40 years. There is no challenge to the sentences, and only Nicole has appealed the conviction.

         In the first three years of their marriage the defendants had two children-and both were removed from the defendants' custody, the first child because she had been readmitted at the age of 10 months to the hospital in which she'd been born, with multiple fractures in her legs that the Easons could not explain, and the second child because of the removal of the first child from their custody as a consequence of their abuse and neglect of her and also because a social worker found that the Easons had neglected the second child as well and had kept their home in an unfit condition for raising children. As a further consequence of the mistreatment of the children the defendants' parental rights were permanently terminated.

         After that the defendants, often using the Internet to make their pitch, falsely represented to adoptive parents (often from out of state) who could no longer take proper care of their adopted children that they (that is, the defendants) were qualified to provide foster care to children-and even that they had documents prepared by social workers recommending them for the care of foster children. The Easons eventually obtained custody of some of these children, including the two children at issue in this case.

         The Easons found the adoptive parents of the first child, K.R., in an Internet chat room for adoptive parents struggling to take care of the children they'd adopted. K.R. was experiencing emotional problems; another child in the same family had a rare, serious kidney disease and was deteriorating; and the father needed open-heart surgery-in short, the parents were overwhelmed. Although Nicole Eason's history of mistreating her own children would almost certainly have precluded her being allowed to take custody of new children, she told the parents that she had recently adopted a child who had the same emotional difficulties as K.R. (she hadn't), that she had paperwork authorizing her to provide foster care to children (she didn't), and that she could help out the family by taking custody of K.R. (she couldn't or wouldn't). The parents, perhaps out of desperation, agreed. They drove K.R. from their house in California to the Easons' residence, in Illinois. She was seven years old.

         Mrs. Eason used similar tactics to obtain custody of the second child, A.B., who was thirteen and suffered from behavioral disorders. Eason met A.B.'s parents in an online chat group for struggling adoptive parents and expressed an interest in taking custody of A.B. The parents told Eason that she'd need to show them a home study (a document, routinely used in adoptions, prepared by a social worker and assessing a family's suitability to care for foster children and including a background check). Eason agreed and flew to Texas, where A.B.'s parents lived, and gave them a home study forged by her though purportedly written by a social worker named Sharon Smalls. (That was an odd-and fraudulent-detail, for Sharon Smalls was the name of the social worker who had advised that the Easons' second biological child be removed from their custody.) The forged study stated falsely that Smalls "did not hesitate to recommend Calvin and Nicole Eason as good and prospective adoptive parents." And so Eason was able to return to Illinois with A.B. in tow.

         Given the reasons for the removal of the Easons' own children from their custody, it is difficult to imagine a social worker's recommending that they be allowed to care for new children, and there is no evidence of any such recommendation. The Easons obtained the children by inveiglement (i.e., luring, enticement) of the children's adoptive parents. Once they had the children in their custody they abused them, or groomed them for abuse-including sexual abuse.

         K.R., who turned eight while in the Easons' custody, testified that they'd had her lie in bed with them and watch pornographic movies, had fondled her, and had hit her when she resisted. A.B. was with the Easons for only a few days, but she likewise testified that the Easons had her lie in bed with them and watch pornographic movies, that Nicole Eason would sometimes lie naked in the bed, that the Easons monitored A.B.'s communications with her adoptive parents, and that she had begun to assume that the Easons' behavior was normal, because the Easons were her caretakers.

         Eventually the adoptive parents, having grown suspicious, asked the defendants to return their children, and the defendants complied.

         Mrs. Eason's principal argument (her husband, having pleaded guilty, has not appealed) is that the children who were the victims of the alleged kidnapping were not inveigled-it was the victims' adoptive parents who were inveigled-and that kidnapping by inveiglement requires that the person or persons inveigled be the ones who were kidnapped-i.e., held "for ransom or reward or otherwise" - and of course the adoptive parents whom the defendants inveigled were not removed from their ...

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