DETROIT (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday threw out the conviction of a former tennis pro from Africa who was accused of beating children with toilet plungers and broomsticks to get them to perform household chores.
Jean-Claude Toviave's treatment of children at his Ypsilanti home was "reprehensible" and "deplorable" but it doesn't amount to forced labor under federal law, the court said.
"The mere fact that Toviave made the children complete chores does not convert Toviave's conduct — what essentially amounts to child abuse — into a federal crime," the court said.
Toviave, a native of Togo, helped four children emigrate from that country in 2006 with fraudulent papers. They testified in Detroit federal court in 2012, telling jurors they were beaten if they didn't follow orders to vacuum, iron, cook, clean and shine shoes. One said he prayed for freedom or death.
Even Toviave's defense attorney, Randall Roberts, said after trial that the "family experiment went horribly off the rails."
U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow sentenced Toviave to slightly more than 11 years in prison in 2013. The decision by the appeals court likely won't immediately free him because he was also convicted of other crimes in the case, including fraud and misuse of visas.
Prosecutors could ask the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to look at the decision by the three-judge panel.
"We are reviewing our options," spokeswoman Gina Balaya said.
Toviave, 45, was not charged with abuse in state court, although the investigation began when the children's teachers suspected abuse. Federal agents took over when they learned how the children entered the country. At least three were related to Toviave.
The appeals court said someone like Toviave, who stands in the place of a parent, has a right to make a child perform chores.
"The line between required chores and forced labor may be a fine one in some circumstances, but that cannot mean that all household chores are forced labor, with only the discretion of prosecutors protecting thoughtful parents from federal prosecution," said judges John Rogers, Richard Suhrheinrich and Jeffrey Sutton. "The facts of this case fall on the chores side of the line."
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