July 22, 2003
By Rob Peecher
The judge hearing the case of cult leader and confessed child molester Malachi York has stepped aside at the request of York's lawyers.
In an order filed late last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson recused himself from the case.
Lawson rejected a plea agreement reached between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the defense, and his decision opens the door again for York's guilty plea to go through.
In January, York pleaded guilty in both federal and state courts to numerous charges involving child molestation. In June, Lawson rejected York's deal with federal prosecutors, after telling lawyers in the case that he thought the proposed 15-year sentence was too lenient.
Early this month, York's lawyers asked Lawson to remove himself from the case, arguing that he had interfered in the plea-bargain process by stating what he thought would be an appropriate sentence.
Both guilty pleas still stand, though York has the opportunity to withdraw the plea because Lawson rejected the plea agreement.
Manny Arora, one of York's defense attorneys, said Monday that the defense will ask the new judge to accept that plea.
"We're not sure who the new judge is or anything about him," Arora said. "We will also ask this judge to accept the plea as it was negotiated, but the U.S. Attorney may have a different point of view, and the new judge, obviously, has to make his own decision as to whether he will accept this plea or not."
U.S. Attorney Max Wood declined to comment on whether the government would oppose the guilty plea. However, there have been two hearings since Lawson first rejected the plea agreement, and York has not withdrawn his guilty plea at either.
According to the plea agreement, York would have spent 15 years in a federal prison. A 15-year negotiated state sentence was to run concurrent with the federal sentence. In his order recusing himself, Lawson said he rejected the plea agreement in May because he thought York should serve at least 20 years in prison.
May 28, Lawson "met with counsel for the government and counsel for the defendant for the purpose of advising them that the court had decided to reject the plea agreement previously negotiated by the government and the defendant," Lawson wrote in his order. "The court explained that after consideration ... the court had come to the conclusion that the 15-year sentence to be imposed under the plea agreement was too lenient."
According to the order, Lawson then "indicated that a sentence of 20 years might be acceptable."
July 10, York's lawyers Ed Garland and Arora argued that Lawson had improperly participated in the negotiations and asked that the judge remove himself from the case. Last Friday, Lawson signed the order doing just that.
The U.S. district clerk of court's office will be responsible for appointing a new judge to the case, but Wood said he didn't know how long that would take.
"The ruling doesn't change anything we're doing," Wood said. "We're preparing for trial. We have many excellent judges in our district, and we'll be ready for trial whoever the judge is, wherever the trial is and whenever the trial is."
May 8, 2002, federal agents arrested York in the parking lot of a Milledgeville grocery store. Simultaneously, FBI SWAT teams and local sheriff's deputies raided the 476-acre farm in Putnam County where York and his followers, the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, were based. Federal agents also raided York's home in Athens.
The arrest was the culmination of months of investigation by the Putnam County Sheriff's Office and the FBI into allegations by the children of members of his group that York had molested them.
Just before the trial on a 208-count state indictment was to begin in early February, York pleaded guilty to two federal counts of transporting children across state lines for the purpose of having sex with them and for attempting to evade financial reporting requirements. He also pleaded guilty to 77 state charges mostly consisting of child molestation and aggravated child molestation.
Since Lawson rejected York's plea agreement, two hearings have been held at the federal courthouse in Macon. Both hearings were notable for the number of York's supporters who attended. More than 250 Nuwaubians attended the first hearing in late June, and about 150 attended the hearing earlier this month.
During the June hearing, York asserted that he is an American Indian, "a sovereign" not subject to federal law. He argued with his attorneys and told a judge that according to United Nations treaties he should be turned over to his "tribe" for trial.
York and his followers moved to Putnam County from New York in 1993. Beginning in 1998, York and the Nuwaubians have been involved in a court battle with Putnam County officials over zoning violations.
The Nuwaubian compound, at 404 Shady Dale Road, features two pyramids, a sphinx and other Egyptian-style statues and building facades.
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