York claims immunity as Indian

Defense raises new issues as about 200 show support

Macon Telegraph/July 1, 2003
By Rob Peecher

Cult leader and confessed child molester Malachi York told a federal court judge Monday that he is a sovereign Indian chief and therefore not subject to federal law.

At a hearing to determine whether York would continue to plead guilty to charges involving child molestation and financial reporting fraud, York failed to answer if he plans to withdraw his guilty plea. But he did demand that the court turn him over to his followers who, he said, would try him.

York asserted that he is "Chief Black Eagle" of the "Yamassee" tribe, which he claimed is recognized by the United Nations. About 200 of York's followers - many wearing what appeared to be American Indian-style clothing and beaded headbands with feathers - gathered in and around the U.S. District Courthouse in Macon during the hearing.

"All I'm asking is that the court recognize that I am an indigenous person," York told Judge Hugh Lawson. "I am a Moorish Cherokee and I cannot get a fair trial if I am being tried by settlers or confederates."

The hearing Monday also gave the defense the opportunity to raise two new issues. York's attorneys asked the judge to grant a psychological evaluation to determine if York is competent; and, presuming York does withdraw his guilty plea, they asked that the trial be moved.

Lawson, who last week rejected York's plea on the grounds that the recommended sentence did not fit the crimes, did not rule on either issue Monday.

The U.S. Attorney's office also announced it plans to re-indict York to add a "forfeiture charge" which might allow the government to seize the 476-acre Putnam County compound that York claims is a "sovereign nation."

York said according to supposed treaties between the government of the United States and his tribe, it is his "inalienable right to be tried by my own people."

York presented documents purportedly signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue as proof that his tribe is recognized by the government. A spokeswoman for the governor, Kimberly King, said last week the document bearing Perdue's signature was "fake."

York is the leader of a cult group known as the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. The group began in the early 1970s in Brooklyn. Over the years, the group has claimed heritage from or religious links to American Indians, Egyptians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, the Shriners and Freemasons. At one point, the Nuwaubians dressed like cowboys and York claimed to be from outer space.

York has told his followers he is an angel, and he has claimed to be a god.

Though he pleaded guilty in January to state charges of molesting 13 children from his group, many of his followers remain loyal to him. There were approximately 50 Nuwaubians inside the courtroom - some who refused to stand as the judge entered or left the courtroom. Outside, there were dozens of Nuwaubians playing drums and waiting. At one point during the hearing, they could be heard inside the courtroom chanting.

Judge Lawson explained at least twice to York that he was rejecting the plea agreement reached in January by York's attorneys and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Under that plea agreement, York would have spent 15 years in prison.

Lawson said he was rejecting the plea agreement for a number of reasons, among them that York's "post-plea behavior" has not indicated that York has accepted his guilt or considered "the impact of the conduct of the defendant on the victims." Lawson also said the 15-year sentence "does not address the severity of the admitted and alleged conduct of the defendant."

After explaining that York likely would receive a stiffer sentence if he continues with his plea of guilty or if he is convicted by a jury, Lawson asked York if he intended to withdraw his plea.

"In all due respect to your court," York responded, "I'm a sovereign. I'm a Native American."

Ed Garland, the attorney representing York, pleaded with Lawson to reconsider his rejection of the 15-year sentence. Garland also asked the judge to indulge him while he read information apparently about York's sovereignty. Lawson asked if it was something Garland was asserting in York's defense.

"It's not a position that I am making a legal argument about, but I have a client who wants to put on the record his position on certain matters," Garland said.

Lawson also asked York's other attorney, Manny Arora, if he believed there was any validity to the assertions York was making, and Lawson threatened Arora with "serious trouble" if he didn't give a direct answer.

"I don't believe, at this point, there is any legal merit," Arora answered.

York said he was "tortured" and "under duress" when he pleaded guilty, and that he had been told by his attorneys he would go to prison for "thousands of years."

When York pleaded guilty in January, Lawson was required to ask York a series of questions to ensure he was voluntarily entering his plea. York said he was voluntarily pleading.

Arora said York has become unwilling to cooperate with his attorneys.

Lawson said he was "unsettled" as to whether or not he would grant the psychological evaluation and would rule on it later, but the U.S. Attorney's office did not object to changing venue.

Lawson told Garland and Arora to be prepared for trial Aug. 4.

York and his followers moved from New York in 1993 to the farm in Putnam County. Since 1998, the group has been at odds with county officials over zoning and building codes, resulting in several lawsuits.

In May 2002, federal authorities and the local sheriff's office raided the group's compound, took five children into protective custody and arrested York at a Milledgeville grocery store. York was charged with numerous state counts of molesting children and charged federally with transporting children across state lines for the purpose of having sex with them.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has been at the forefront of the county's zoning battles with the Nuwaubians and was a key participant in the criminal investigation into the child molestation allegations.

Sills said Monday's hearing was "Mr. York being allowed to make a complete mockery of the criminal justice system, and what you saw today was the first round in a three-ring circus in full Indian headdress."

"Less than a year ago (York) was a Jewish Rabbi," Sills said, "and today they were all dressed like Indians again."

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