Elk Grove attorney Haris McKinley took a February plea deal to avoid years behind bars after loading a 15-year-old girl onto an Atlanta-bound bus last fall to keep her from testifying against his client – the girl’s alleged pimp.
With McKinley’s client-turned-co-defendant facing trial in May, a defense attorney in court filings this week demanded details from Sacramento County prosecutors alleging they brokered a sweetheart deal with McKinley in exchange for information at the expense of the teen who was allegedly sold for sex, then shuttled into hiding.
“McKinley orchestrated the whole thing,” public defender Guy Danilowitz told Judge Patrick Marlette at a March 16 preliminary hearing for Desmond Octavius Oates, 24, and Latrele Mitchell Neal, 27, in Sacramento Superior Court.
“What the DA has done and is doing – it’s turning justice on its head. We hold attorneys to the highest ethical standard,” Danilowitz said. McKinley’s conduct “isn’t just ethically questionable,” he told Marlette. “This is so far off the moral compass that it’s unbelievable.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The defense lawyer filed a written motion Monday making similar arguments.
Oates, accused of pimping the 15-year-old and a 17-year-old girl between June and August 2016, faces a total of nine counts, including pimping, pandering, causing a minor to engage in a commercial sex act and dissuading a witness.
Neal is charged with dissuading a witness, conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in connection with the plot.
A Sacramento Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the defense motion March 30 – the same day of McKinley’s scheduled sentencing on a single count of felony dissuading a witness. The deal McKinley struck with prosecutors would mean a year in state prison and a “strike” under California’s “three strikes” law.
Sacramento County prosecutors in January filed a 12-page complaint against the 33-year-old McKinley that unwound the alleged scheme to ship the girl out of California before she could take the witness stand at Oates’ preliminary hearing. The charges originally filed against the lawyer included felony dissuading of a witness, conspiracy, accessory after the fact, committing lewd acts on the teen and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Convictions on those charges could have resulted in years in prison, even with McKinley’s previously clean criminal record.
But the most serious charges, and the years behind bars that might have followed, fell by the wayside with McKinley’s February no-contest plea to the single felony count.
Danilowitz called the deal “inexplicably and incomprehensibly lenient” in his motion Monday.
In the 11-page court filing, Danilowitz called on prosecutors to turn over Oates’ criminal file seized from McKinley along with any offers made to Oates; records of any communications between McKinley, his lawyer and prosecutors including settlement talks; and a list of all the DA’s criminal cases in which McKinley served as defense counsel.
“(McKinley) was the one in a position to put a stop to this whole enterprise and the only one without whom it could never have taken place,” Danilowitz argued in his motion this week. “Instead, he personally drove 180 miles in the middle of the night and kidnapped a 15-year-old, whom he knew was a child prostitute, from her grandmother while her grandmother slept, allegedly raped her in his car, and then sent her on a bus from Sacramento to Atlanta, causing her to then be re-victimized for which no one will ever be held accountable.”
He alleged that Oates knew nothing of McKinley’s plan. Oates faces decades in prison instead of the six to 16 years that prosecutors offered him before McKinley took on the case in September.
FBI agent Taylor Dervish testified at last week’s Sacramento Superior Court hearing for Oates and Neal. Dervish interviewed the teen at an Atlanta house for girls who were victims of sex trafficking.
The court testimony, the January criminal complaint, Danilowitz’s filing and other documents describe a series of events that led to McKinley’s arrest and Oates’ and Neal’s day in court:
Last September, Oates was sitting in a downtown Sacramento jail cell on charges that he pimped and trafficked a 15-year-old girl who was about to take the witness stand at his preliminary hearing.
Danilowitz, in his court filing, argued that McKinley took the long, late-night drive from Elk Grove to the tiny San Joaquin Valley town of Armona in Kings County to pick up the girl, who was staying with her grandmother ahead of Oates’ October preliminary hearing.
McKinley had been hired days earlier, but already had smuggled a mobile phone into an attorney room at the Sacramento County Main Jail so Oates could tell the teen to clear out of California before the preliminary hearing, prosecutors said.
Sacramento County District Attorney’s prosecutors alleged in their January complaint that McKinley picked up the girl in the middle of the night, ditched her phone, then bought her a new blocked phone and a bus ticket under a fake name.
Hours later, McKinley had the girl in the car headed for a Sacramento bus station where friends – including a former client, Latrele Mitchell Neal – were ready to put her on a Greyhound bound for Atlanta and out of a downtown courtroom, according to prosecutors.
A friend of McKinley’s met her in Atlanta and stowed her at his place. A week later, the friend moved the girl again, this time to the home of one of McKinley’s cousins in suburban Sandy Springs, Ga. One of McKinley’s investigators later reached the girl to tell her to stay out of sight, Dervish testified.
The plan, the FBI agent told the court, was for the girl to keep moving and not testify. If the girl was found by authorities, she was instructed to tell them Oates didn’t know she was only 15, Dervish testified. Oates continued to contact the girl via Facebook, while McKinley continued to coach the teen, telling her what to say if she was contacted by police, he said.
“This crime … was created entirely by McKinley,” Danilowitz wrote in the motion. “The only thing that Oates did wrong was allowing his family to hire this attorney … All of McKinley’s crimes were committed exclusively through him taking advantage of his position as an attorney,”
McKinley traded on his position of trust as an officer of the court to the ruin of nearly everyone around him: the 15-year-old girl, his former client Neal, the friends who allegedly hid the teen in Georgia, Oates’ family and Oates himself, Danilowitz argued.
“McKinley betrayed them all,” Danilowitz wrote.