Should a South Jersey millionaire charged with traveling to Eastern Europe to have sex with 13 foreign boys stand trial in a federal court in Philadelphia?
"If I'm not convinced that there can be a fair trial, then there will be no trial," U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Kauffman said during a three-hour hearing yesterday.
Among the unusual issues in the case of Anthony Mark Bianchi of North Wildwood, N.J., who is charged under a 2003 U.S. law that makes it a crime to travel overseas to have sex with minors:
The U.S. government plans to fly the boys and other witnesses from Romania and the former Soviet Republic of Moldova to Philadelphia to testify. Lawyers for Bianchi complain that their client doesn't have the money or the subpoena power to compel their witnesses to appear here.
During the recent Moldovan trial of the alleged pimp/translator who helped Bianchi, several boys named in the U.S. indictment appeared to recant their statements. But the official trial record from Moldova is based, in part, on hand-written, often hard-to-read notes by a judge there, and may not be complete.
The pimp/translator, Ion Gusin, was convicted and remains jailed in Moldova, serving a 20-year sentence, rendering him unavailable to testify in person in Philadelphia. Prosecutors and defense lawyers may fly to Moldova soon to try to take a videotaped deposition to be played at trial here. But first, the American lawyers must obtain permission from the Moldovan authorities, an uncertain task.
Despite these issues, and what Kauffman called "the uniqueness" of the case, the judge set a new trial date of July 10. While the judge withheld a final ruling on Bianchi's effort to dismiss the indictment yesterday, he indicated that he believed a fair trial was possible.
When Bianchi's lawyer, Mark Geragos, the high-profile California defense attorney, told Kauffman that, given the circumstances, no lawyer could possibly competently defend such a case, the judge replied:
"You know what, Mr. Geragos? You're going to get to prove yourself wrong on that."
Bianchi was arrested in January 2006 and charged with flying to Romania, Cuba and Moldova to have sex with 13 boys ages 12 to 15. If convicted he faces a prison term of five to 20 years.
Bianchi, 44, has never been charged with committing a crime in the United States. He was convicted of unrelated but similar crimes in Russia in 2000 and was sentenced to three years in prison there, though he was soon freed under a general amnesty order.
According to a translation of Moscow court records, Bianchi traveled to Russia 10 times between 1996 and March 2000, seducing boys he met at train stations and video-game parlors, often paying them for sex.
Of the 13 boys in the present case, two are from Romania and 11 are from Moldova, most from a rural village with little electricity or running water.
Although the lawyers in the U.S. case have a copy of the hand-written summary of Gusin's trial in Moldova late last year, it is sealed and they declined to make it public yesterday.
Geragos said that the Moldovan records indicate that at least four of the boys recanted their statements, two refused to testify, one disappeared, and one said his brush with Bianchi amounted to little more than a sleigh ride. Geragos said such testimony calls into question the U.S. government's entire case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy argued that the notes reflect that only two or three boys recanted during the Moldovan trial. Of the 13 boys named in the original indictment, Levy said he planned to bring 11 to Philadelphia for trial.
Levy suggested that the statements in the Moldovan court could have be coerced, or that the boys may have altered their stories to avoid embarrassment in their hometown.
Kauffman appeared troubled by the notion that key witnesses might be changing their stories, though he said that their credibility is ultimately a question for the jury, not the judge.
"It is disturbing to say the least, if it's true that nine out of the 11 complaining witnesses have recanted the story that they told," the judge said. But he added: "Simply because they recant doesn't mean they weren't telling the truth the first time."
Bianchi, who has been detained since his arrest, again asked to be released, pending trial. He has promised to post his family's $7 million hotel in Wildwood as bail, and to wear an electronic bracelet.
But Kauffman again rejected that request, saying he is a flight risk.
"It's not likely that Mr. Bianchi would flee, it's inevitable," the judge said.