United States v. Ashford, 20-3561
In this case, there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude the defendant possessed child pornography. The defendant argues that while the minor victim testified Ashford requested and she sent sexually explicit pictures of herself to his Facebook Messenger account, no direct evidence showed he actually sent and received those communications.
There was sufficient circumstantial evidence, including the lack of evidence as to any alternative, for a reasonable jury to conclude it was Ashford who requested and received the child pornography through his account.
A jury convicted Devin Ashford of sex trafficking of a minor, 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1), (b)(2), (c); production of child pornography, 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a); sex trafficking by means of force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion, 18 U.S.C § 1591(a)(1), (b)(1)–(2); and interstate travel for prostitution, 18 U.S.C. § 2421(a).
Ashford appeals, arguing there was insufficient evidence for his conviction on each count and that the district court’s sentence was unreasonable. at 1102 (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Cole, 721 F.3d 1016, 1021 (8th Cir. 2013)).
First, Ashford argues there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for sex trafficking of a minor because there was no evidence E.F., the minor victim, ever actually engaged in commercial sex acts or was enticed by Ashford to engage in such acts. While Ashford argues there is no direct evidence he sent these messages, the jury reasonably inferred he did because the messages came from his phone and Ashford presented no evidence indicating someone else sent them. Moreover, a witness who lived with E.F. testified Ashford instructed her to find “dates” for E.F.
Next, Ashford argues there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for production of child pornography. Ashford argues that while the minor victim testified Ashford requested and she sent sexually explicit pictures of herself to his Facebook Messenger account, no direct evidence showed he actually sent and received those communications.
Third, Ashford argues there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for sex trafficking by fraud, force, or coercion. He contends there was no direct evidence that the victim engaged in a commercial sex act. The victim’s testimony that Ashford advertised her to men, expected her to have sex with men for money, and would beat her if she refused to go on “dates” was sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude Ashford knowingly advertised and enticed the victim to meet with men knowing the threat of force would cause her to engage in commercial sex acts. See United States v. Reed, 972 F.3d 946, 952 (8th Cir.2020) (“The jury is the final arbiter of the witnesses’ credibility, and we will not disturb that assessment.”) (quoting United States v. Listman, 636 F.3d 425, 430 (8th Cir. 2011) (noting “a victim’s testimony alone can be sufficient to prove aggravated sexual abuse”).
Ashford offers the same no-evidence-of-a-commercial-sex-act argument for the final count, interstate travel for prostitution. However, victims testified Ashford traveled with them and intimidated them into having sex for money in several different states. This is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude Ashford knowingly transported victims across state lines intending they engage in prostitution in violation of 18 U.S.C.§ 2421(a).
We review whether the district court’s sentence was substantively reasonable “under a ‘deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.’” United States v. Stephen, 984 F.3d 625, 632 (8th Cir. 2021). The district court emphasized the nature of the offenses and the need for the sentence imposed, noting Ashford’s disregard and cruelty towards his victims and that he had no other career outside of his crimes. The district court was well within its broad discretion in determining the § 3553(a) factors required a sentence more severe than Ashford wanted. See United States v. Donahue, 959 F.3d 864, 867 (8th Cir. 2020) (“[S]entencing courts. . . have wide discretion to weigh the § 3553(a) factors.”) (alterations in original) (quoting United States v. Wilder, 597 F.3d 936, 946 (8th Cir. 2010)).