Oklahoma man wants Kenyan orphan abuse convictions dismissed

AP News
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Posted: Aug 07, 2015 5:38 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma man convicted of illicit sexual conduct with children at a Kenyan orphanage has challenged the constitutionality of the law he was convicted of violating and wants a federal judge to throw out a jury's guilty verdicts.

Attorneys for Matthew Lane Durham, 20, of Edmond, have filed motions in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, where a jury found him guilty in June on seven counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. Jurors cleared him of accusations that he planned to abuse the children before leaving the United States.

Prosecutors alleged that Durham targeted orphans while serving as a volunteer at the Upendo Children's Home in Nairobi, Kenya, between April and June 2014. He was convicted on charges involving girls ranging from 5 to 15 years old and a 12-year-old boy. Durham had served as a volunteer since 2012 at the orphanage, which specializes in caring for neglected children.

The trial was conducted in Oklahoma under a federal law that gives U.S. prosecutors the authority to prosecute American citizens who travel abroad for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with someone under age 16.

But defense attorney Stephen Jones alleges in legal papers that the law overreaches Congress' authority to regulate a person's activities when they travel to a foreign nation. If upheld, such overreach could allow Congress to regulate activities that might not be illegal conduct in the nation where it occurred, "even including jaywalking," the defense motion states.

"The right to travel is a fundamental right, and any burden imposed upon it is reviewed with strict scrutiny," the motion states. "Mr. Durham's right to travel has been unduly burdened," in violation of his constitutional rights, it says.

A separate motion alleges that evidence presented against Durham at his trial was insufficient to convict him and that the charges should be dismissed.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Bob Troester, said the office had no comment on the motions.

No hearing date was immediately set. Convictions for engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places are punishable by prison terms of up to 30 years and a $250,000 fine. U.S. District Judge David Russell has ordered a pre-sentencing report but has not set a sentencing date for Durham.

Orphanage officials and five of the children traveled from Kenya to testify at the trial. The children, who speak Swahili, testified through an interpreter only after Russell cleared the gallery and closed the courtroom to the public and media.

Evidence produced by prosecutors included handwritten, signed confessions that Durham gave orphanage officials after he was accused of inappropriate behavior. Jones argued that the statements were coerced by orphanage officials who isolated Durham, took his passport and created the allegations to obtain $17,000 from the U.S. government for security cameras.

Durham testified in his own defense about his Christian faith and his onetime belief that he was possessed by a demon that made him "do evil."

Prosecutors produced a series of text messages Durham sent to friends while still in eastern Africa, saying a demon named "Luke" was controlling his behavior. In one, Durham wrote: "He stole my passport and is trying to stop me from getting help. He wants me to stay here and do evil with him."