Sect leader's trial to begin amid influx of supporters

Athens Banner-Herald/January 5, 2004
By Joe Johnson

Brunswick -- After a marathon jury-selection process on Monday, opening arguments in the the long-awaited trial of religious sect leader and accused child molester Dwight ''Malachi'' York are to begin today in federal court.


Monday's daylong session in U.S. District Court went uninterrupted, with extraordinary security measures taken to thwart possible attempts by York's legion of devout followers to influence jurors. The Anthony A. Alaimo Court Facility in this port city's historic downtown was ringed by dozens of law enforcement personnel, from black SWAT-outfitted Glynn County police officers to machine gun-toting Federal Protective Service officers.

The scene outside the courthouse was markedly different from each of York's - several pre-trial appearances in Macon, where his case was being prosecuted until a change of venue was ordered by presiding U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal, who feared potential jurors would be influenced by intense media coverage of the case.

York, 58, is leader of a religious sect that until recently called itself the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. The group is now called the Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation, and refers to York as Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle.

York was accused by federal authorities in May 2002 of molesting more than a dozen minor girls, some as young as 11, at both a house he owned in Athens and at a large Nuwaubian compound in Putnam County. He is being tried on 13 federal counts, including child molestation and racketeering charges. An earlier plea bargain meant to avoid trial was rejected by a different federal judge, who felt the agreed-upon sentence of 15 years in prison was too lenient.

With the courtroom already closed to the public, potential jurors were led out of the courtroom into an adjoining room where the judge could question them about their prior knowledge of York's case out of earshot of reporters, who are being allowed to attend the the trial.

At the end of the day, a panel of 16 was chosen, with four jurors to be later designated as alternates. The panel is made up of five women and 11 men, of whom three are black and 13 are white.

Both York's attorney, Adrian Patrick, and U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood said they were pleased by the jury that was chosen.

''It's hard to tell about a jury before you give them the case, but I think we have the best jury we can get,'' Patrick said.

''It is a very difficult thing to do with a high-profile case,'' Wood said, ''but with his one-to-one questioning of the jurors, I think Judge Royal was fair to both sides.''

Wearing a combination ankh and crucifix, a member of the Nuwaubian religious sect stands outside the federal courthouse. Morris News Service York, however, was far from pleased with the panel that will determine his fate.


''This is a mock jury,'' he said immediately after Royal adjourned for the day. The defendant was quickly told by his attorney to be quiet before he could explain what he meant by the remark.

While hundreds of his followers had stood vigil outside the Macon courthouse during their leader's pre-trial hearings, fewer than a dozen showed up to watch the proceedings on closed circuit television being provided as a result of the courtroom being closed to the public. The television was in a third-floor courtroom, one floor above from where the jury was being picked.

One supporter, Frederick Johnson, said he firmly believed in York's innocence, saying he had been pressured into admitting guilt as part of the rejected plea bargain.

''He was under duress and tortured when he pleaded guilty,'' Johnson said, explaining the torture was not physical, but psychological because of the prison conditions under which York has been living during his 20 months of pre-trial detention.

Wood and Patrick said they expect the trial to last three to four weeks.

Wood said he planned to call on more than 30 witnesses to testify. One of those witnesses will be a woman who accused York of molesting her both at York's house in Athens and at the Nuwaubian compound near Eatonton.

In a previous interview with the Athens Banner-Herald, the woman, now 18, told of how she had accompanied her mother and a younger sister from their home in New York City to live on the Putnam County compound, where she was told the world was going to suffer an apocalypse, but she would be among the chosen few to be saved if she had sex with York.

When addressing potential jurors prior to the selection process, Royal gave them a summary of the prosecution's case against York, which includes allegations that, in addition to molesting children, his religious group was a front for an illegal enterprise that evaded currency transaction reporting requirements.















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