WICHITA, Kan. - A Jamaican woman accused of entering into a "sham marriage" with a Kansas soldier faces a federal trial Tuesday during which jurors must decide whether she wed for love or for immigration purposes in a criminal prosecution.
Prosecutors say Shannakay Hunter was an a illegal immigrant who conspired with Joshua Priest, then a private in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Riley, to enter into marriage so she could get a "green card" and regain her legal status, as well as receive military benefits such as health care for herself and her two children. Priest, 23, in turn received Army housing and subsistence benefits provided to married soldiers. The government contends their May 2010 marriage in Junction City was never consummated and the couple never lived together.
But the defense in its court filings has portrayed the 28-year-old Jamaican immigrant, who lives in Bronx, New York, as a hardworking mother who admittedly overstayed her visa but married for love - and that her husband only made the allegations of fraud out of anger. The defense plans to call as a witness the victim advocate who took care of Hunter after an alleged domestic abuse incident in Junction City involving Priest.
Which portrayal of Hunter prevails - fraud or loving wife - will be determined during a three-day trial that begins Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Wichita. Hunter faces charges of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud, marriage fraud and making a false statement to the government. If convicted she faces up to five years in prison on each count, although she would likely get far less, if any, prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. But she would likely be deported.
"I am absolutely mystified by this prosecution," defense attorney Molly McMurray said in a phone interview. "You know, there are hordes of people coming into this country every day, and for some reason the government is picking on a woman who came here legally who has no criminal record. Now, she did overstay her visa, but she works and she takes care of her two children, who are United States citizens."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson, who is prosecuting the case, in an email said, "We disagree with the lawyer's statement but we cannot respond to it as to this specific case until after the case has been concluded."
Priest is expected to be the government's star witness. He pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and wire fraud in a deal with prosecutors for leniency in exchange for his testimony against his wife. He will be sentenced in October after admitting he got $26,000 in military benefits for married soldiers that he was not entitled to receive.
The marriage came to the government's attention in February 2011 when Hunter returned to Fort Riley from New York to make sure Priest would attend an upcoming immigration hearing in which her change of status was going to be heard. She told Priest's superiors that he failed to provide support to her since their marriage, as required by Army regulations, and that he needed to be ordered to attend her impending immigration hearing, given his "moral obligation" to do so, according to a court filing.
After his superiors confronted him, Priest told them the marriage was arranged so Hunter could get legal immigration status. His superiors ordered him to attend the immigration hearing but also reported the suspected marriage fraud to an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fraud hotline and the Army's Central Investigations Divisions, court documents show.
Hunter's defense attorney acknowledged that while the couple has always lived apart, she would often come to visit her husband in Kansas.
"She is adamant - and has been the entire time - that she is innocent," McMurray said. "It is weighing heavily on her."