WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A federal jury convicted a Jamaican woman Thursday of entering into a "sham marriage" with a Kansas soldier so she could get legal immigration status.
Shannakay Hunter, 28, fought back tears after the jury returned guilty verdicts for conspiracy to commit marriage fraud, marriage fraud and lying to the government.
Hunter, who lives in New York, faces up to five years imprisonment on each count. She is likely to get far less, if any, prison time under federal guidelines during sentencing, which has not been set.
The government contends her 2010 marriage to Joshua Priest, 23, then a private at Fort Riley, was a fake arrangement to give her a green card and him $1,500 in extra monthly benefits for married soldiers. Priest has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and wire fraud in a deal with the government for leniency in exchange for his testimony against Hunter.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told jurors during closing arguments that the false marriage would not have been uncovered had Hunter not gone to the soldier's military superiors in an effort to force him to attend an immigration hearing.
Priest testified the couple had not met until she came to Kansas to get married and that they never had sex or lived together.
"If you think about it, Joshua Priest has his problems, but he doesn't have a problem getting girls," Anderson said. "So what sense would it make to get into this relationship with a person his cousin introduces him to, living in another place? What adds up: He did it for the reason he said he did it."
Anderson cited testimony from several witnesses who said Priest and Hunter both told them the marriage was a sham. Priest's battalion commander, who reported the suspected marriage fraud to immigration authorities, said he could tell after meeting the couple that the relationship was fraudulent. Priest later admitted as much to him and another of his superiors, according to testimony.
Defense attorney Molly McMurray attacked the credibility of the government's witnesses, especially Priest, who has admitted repeatedly lying in the past. She asked jurors not to make her client a convicted felon on his word.
Hunter did not take the stand. The only defense witness called was an advocate for domestic abuse victims who helped Hunter after an altercation with Priest over some immigration paperwork.
McMurray pointed to the more than 250 phone calls between the couple over five months as proof of their relationship, while the government discounted them by arguing Hunter was constantly calling Priest to live up to his part of the deal.
"We are talking David versus Goliath," McMurray said. "All the resources of the U.S. attorney's office, all the resources of the Department of Homeland Security stacked against Shannakay and her court-appointed attorney."