A Washington Tragedy

                                                                                                    By Hugh Turley 

Equal justice under the law dates back to the funeral oration of Pericles.  The grand jury can safeguard equal justice and defend citizens from tyranny.  Sometimes justice can be best served when a grand jury refuses to indict a citizen, even when that citizen may be guilty of a crime. 

Justice is not equal when one citizen is targeted for prosecution while other citizens are not.  Deborah Jeane Palfrey called the “DC Madam” by the press, was convicted of running a prostitution service that served Washington’s political elite. 

After her conviction and suicide by hanging, WTOP reporter Neil Augenstein said Palfrey had told him she thought; “someone in the government had targeted her for prosecution.”  Maybe she was right.  The Federal Government normally does not prosecute prostitution. Violations of local statutes are usually prosecuted by local jurisdictions. 

Palfrey was indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (commonly referred to as RICO).  The act provides harsh penalties and permits the government to seize the assets of the person indicted.  Persons indicted under RICO often plead guilty to lesser charges because they cannot afford a defense attorney after their assets have been seized. 

The grand jury indictment charged Palfrey with racketeering, interstate commerce in aid of racketeering, and conspiracy to launder money obtained in exchange for sexual intercourse.  Under the RICO indictment the government seized her assets including her bank accounts, investments, home, and gold coins in her home. 

Palfrey was not charged with income tax evasion and reportedly paid her taxes and filed 1099 forms for her employees. 

Uncovering an escort service involved in prostitution is reminiscent of Claude Raines closing Humphrey Bogart’s Cafe in the film Casablanca.  “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here,” said Captain Renault, as a croupier handed him a pile of money saying, “your winnings, sir.” 

Yellow-page telephone directories have hundreds of pages of sexually suggestive advertisements under “escorts.”  The online Yellow Pages has 144 escort listings in Washington with names like, Bad Girls, No Limit Exotic Dancers, Sexy Girls, A One Night Stand, Black Fantasy, Anything Goes, and Hot Girls.  

In other cities, Yellowpages.com lists134 escort services in Miami, 153 in Minneapolis, 186 in Chicago, 228 in Los Angeles, 301 in Atlanta, 373 in Dallas, TX.  Even the small town of Crooks, South Dakota, population 859, has 5 escort services listed at Yellowpages.com. 

If escort services are engaged in prostitution are the companies that profit from advertising these services also part of a racketeering enterprise? 

In exchange for an interview, Palfrey gave her telephone records to ABC News.   She told ABC news that Brandy Britton, charged with prostitution by Howard County, Maryland, once worked for her.  Britton reportedly hanged herself before her trial.  

The trial judge suppressed the phone numbers and names of Palfrey’s 10,000 customers.  This information could have been subpoenaed and examined by the grand jurors.  If the grand jurors had discovered that trusted public officials were associated with the criminal enterprise they could have been indicted.  

Thomas Aquinas wrote, “It is impossible that the common good of any state can be fittingly maintained in the absence of virtuous citizens, at the very least in the person of those citizens who play leadership roles within the state.”  Removing corrupt officials would better serve the community than jailing the “DC Madam”.  

The federal grand jury could have refused to indict Palfrey.  They could have issued subpoenas and investigated who made the decision to target Palfrey’s escort service under the RICO Act?  They could have questioned the prosecutor under oath.  

It is odd that Palfrey was indicted for conspiracy, but no other conspirators were indicted.  None of the companies advertising the prostitution nor Palfrey’s prostitutes or customers were indicted by the federal grand jury.  

Grand juries, also called the people’s panel, have historically played an adversarial role with government prosecutors.  Given recent legislation like the Patriot Act, our fellow citizens serving on the grand jury may be a citizen’s best hope for equal justice.  Grand jurors should be apprehensive when it appears one individual is being targeted. 

Palfrey’s last hope for justice disappeared when the petit jury found her guilty.  Jury nullification is when a jury ignores the instructions of the judge and the law.  Citizens can do what they think is right to assure justice.  The jury could have found Palfrey innocent in spite of the evidence against her. 

Perhaps a future grand jury will choose to subpoena the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey and the investigative records surrounding her prosecution and death. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 Hyattsville Life and Times of Hyattsville, Maryland.

See also The "DC Madam Outrage" and "The Improbability of the DC Madam's Suicide."

David Martin, April 10, 2008


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