A former professor is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his conviction on charges that he raped and tortured little girls in Cambodia.
In 2021, a Los Angeles jury found Michael J. Pepe guilty on two counts of “traveling in foreign commerce with the purpose of committing illicit sexual acts” and two counts of “crossing a state line to sexually abuse a child under 12.”
In the petition filed earlier this month, Pepe, 70, doesn’t deny the U.S. government’s allegations that he molested preadolescent girls at his upscale villa in Phnom Penh.
Instead, Pepe’s attorneys argue that the government’s jurisdictional “hook” for filing charges in the U.S. against their client was fatally flawed.
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The government alleged that when Pepe traveled to the U.S. to attend his son’s high school graduation in May 2005 and his daughter’s wedding in August of that year, on the return trips to Cambodia he crossed state lines with the intent to molest children.
In the Supreme Court petition, Pepe’s lawyers claim that even if their client intended to molest children when he returned to Cambodia, these were “innocent round trips” under a 1944 case, Mortensen v. United States, and cannot form the basis for prosecuting Pepe.
In what may be a sign that prosecutors believe Pepe’s petition lacks merit, on Friday the government waived its right to file a response “unless requested to do so by the Court.”
Pepe’s petition to the Supreme Court marks the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2006 when Cambodia National Police arrested him on charges of “debauchery,” which is Cambodian legalese for child molestation.
A search of Pepe’s computer revealed photos of underage girls in provocative poses inside his bedroom.
In 2007, the Cambodian government handed Pepe over to agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who then brought the former professor to Los Angeles to face charges.
In 2008, a jury found Pepe guilty under a federal law prohibiting any U.S. citizen who “travels in foreign commerce” from committing illicit sexual conduct with a minor.
But in 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena reversed Pepe’s conviction, reasoning that because he lived in Cambodia, he wasn’t engaged in “travels” when he molested the little girls.
The government responded by indicting Pepe on related charges, alleging that after attending his son’s graduation and his daughter’s wedding in New Mexico he traveled back to Cambodia with intent to molest children.
After a jury found Pepe guilty, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer sentenced him to 210 years in federal prison, rebuffing the defense’s argument that a long sentence would be unduly harsh.
“Pepe confined numerous preteen girls in his home,” said Judge Fischer. “The horrors he inflicted on those girls was more than unduly harsh, it was torture.”
In August 2023, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Pepe’s argument that the trips he made from Cambodia to the U.S. and back again had an “innocent purpose.”
“A jury could have rationally found that one of Pepe’s primary motivations for returning to Cambodia was to sexually abuse young girls,” said the court in its opinion.
The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether to review, and potentially overturn, Pepe’s conviction.
Doug Kari is an attorney and journalist in Southern California.