The U.S. District Court for the NMI has denied a motion to set aside the sentence imposed on a former karaoke operator who was convicted of sex trafficking.
In an order on Monday, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona said that Chang Ru Meng Backman’s claims of ineffective counsel is meritless on its face.
Backman was sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison after a jury found her guilty of forcing into prostitution a woman, who had been tricked into flying from China to Saipan on promises of a work visa and a legal job, when in fact the victim received only a tourist visa, was effectively imprisoned, and was told repeatedly that she had nowhere to turn and must engage in prostitution.
During trial, attorneys Joaquin and Victorino DLG Torres served as her lawyers.
Now she wants her conviction set aside, claiming that her lawyers failed to timely and substantively complete motion to admit evidence of the victim’s sexual conduct after the indictment period.
Manglona said she has reviewed Backman’s motion and concludes that, to prevail on a claim that counsel was so ineffective as to violate her Sixth Amendment, a petitioner “must show that [her] attorney’s performance was unreasonable under prevailing professional standards, and there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result would have been different.”
In this case, Manglona said, assuming that the trial counsel’s failure to timely file a substantively complete motion was objectively unreasonable, Backman cannot demonstrate a reasonable probability that but for her trial counsel’s error, she would have been found not guilty.
Manglona said that Backman’s theory of defense, in part, was to demonstrate that the victim willingly engaged in sex acts for payment and not as the result of force, coercion, or fraud.
However, Manglona said, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had already stated, “We doubt that evidence that the victim engaged in commercial sex acts after she had been coerced into prostitution has a bearing on whether defendant earlier took coercive actions.”
Manglona agreed with the Ninth Circuit.
Manglona said even if the victim engaged in commercial sex acts willingly after Backman was indicted, that does not resolve the material question of whether she coerced or forced the victim to engage in such acts prior to being indicted.
Jurors found Backman guilty on June 7, 2013, of one count of sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, but acquitted her of two counts of the same charges involving two other women.
In February 2014, Manglona sentenced Backman.
Shortly after the sentencing, Manglona appointed David Banes as counsel for Backman and her trial counsel was terminated.
Banes appealed the conviction and sentence.
In March 2016, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Backman’s conviction.
While the appeal was pending, Backman filed a motion to vacate her sentence. In the motion, Banes stated that Backman had written him a letter in February 2015 to ask him for the first time to raise the ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
Banes said first, that the trial counsel failed to inform Backman that she could plead guilty and second, that trial counsel did not object to the court’s reading of an Allen charge when the jury was deadlocked because counsel wanted more money.
On Feb. 9, 2015, Manglona denied the motion without prejudice, stating that Backman was not precluded from filing another motion to vacate her sentence in the future.
Last March 30, Backman, without a lawyer, filed a new motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence. She argued that she receive ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
In her order denying the motion, Manglona noted that, as the victim testified at trial, she paid a man over $10,000 to travel to Saipan and was told she would receive a work visa for a job on a farm or in a hotel.
However, the victim said she was issued a tourist visa and taken straight to the New Holiday Club run by Backman who took her to a room and informed her that she was required to perform “companion service,” including sex, for customers.
Manglona said the victim also testified in detail about being taken by Backman several times to a customer’s house or a hotel and forcing to have sex with those customers.
Manglona said one customer testified at trial that he had paid Backman on multiple occasions by cash and check for sex with women from the New Holiday Club.
The judge said all of the evidence demonstrates that it was reasonable for a jury to infer that the victim had been forced, coerced, or defrauded into performing commercial sex acts by Backman.