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Professor James Cavalcoli Arrested; Understand His Best Defense

Professor James Cavalcoli University of Michigan

Professor James Cavalcoli
University of Michigan

James Cavalcoli, a professor from the University of Michigan, was arrested in Weston, Florida, after he allegedly showed up at the Bonaventure Resort and Spa to meet a man who he thought would provide his 14 year old son for sex.  Unbeknownst to Cavalcoli, the 14 year old boy didn’t exist and the “dad” was really an undercover FBI agent.

After being arrested, Cavalcoli supposedly admitted to the entire thing, stating that he regretted his actions.  What comes next is the battle of his life.  Cases like these are always about prison sentences – the question for Cavalcoli is how long…

The Allegations

According to a Complaint filed in Federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Cavalcoli’s case began on the internet.  In a prior post, we explained how police investigate child pornography cases.  Even though this case concerns an actual meetup as opposed to porn, the methodology used by the FBI was basically the same.

Back in November 2013, a detective from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who is also a member of the FBI’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (“ICAC”), listed himself on a website as a dad with a 13 year old son in the South Florida area.  The website is allegedly a social media site that caters to men which has a section dedicated to sexual fantasies.  In this section, men discuss matters relating to child pornography and sexual activity with young boys.

Cavalcoli, whose first name is James, allegedly went by the name “Jim.”

Over the next 18-19 months, “Jim” and the undercover investigator maintained regular online contact, which included discussions about Jim’s interest in child pornography, his annual trip to Florida, and “real-time” meetups.

Ultimately, Jim made plans with the undercover investigator to meet at the Bonaventure Resort in Weston during his work related trip this year.  The purpose of the meetup was to have sex with the 14 year old boy.  In fact, Jim suggested that the dad was welcome to either watch or join in if he wanted.

When Jim arrived at the hotel, he texted the undercover detective indicating he was there for the meet and even described the clothing he was wearing.  When Cavalcoli walked in the door matching the physical description previously obtained by law enforcement and wearing the clothing described in the text messages, agents immediately took him into custody.

Following his arrest, Cavalcoli was read his Miranda Rights and allegedly confessed to the entire thing, stating that he regretted his actions.

What Evidence do They Have Against James Cavalcoli?

During the course of the 18-19 months of online contact, Cavalcoli emailed the undercover detectives naked photos of himself. After which, agents issued subpoenas to obtain the IP address associated with Jim’s online activity. This included subpoenas to Yahoo and Microsoft.

Ultimately, investigators were able to ascertain Cavalcoli’s IP address and his internet provider account information, which included his full name, address, and cell phone number.  Investigators then cross referenced this information with Michigan’s motor vehicle department and obtained drivers license photos that appeared to match the man in the photo used in Jim’s profile on the social media website.

During the conversations Jim had with the undercover investigator about planning the meetup, the investigator told Jim that the rules meant “no pain, condoms always… and it [sic] always about him”.  Jim replied that he would bring condoms and lubricant. Not surprisingly, when Cavalcoli was arrested, investigators found condoms and lubricant in his car.

Next, on the day of the meetup, Jim texted investigators from a cell phone that matched the phone number listed in the internet service provider records obtained in Cavalcoli’s name.  Then, of course, James Cavalcoli was the guy who showed up for the meeting at the designated place and time, wearing the same exact clothing as described by Jim.

Finally, the last piece of evidence that seals the deal for Cavalcoli is his post-Miranda confession.  When a person is in police custody, investigators must first read that person their Miranda Rights prior to any interrogation or else the person’s statements become inadmissible in court.  In this case, it appears as though Cavalcoli waived his right to a lawyer both verbally and in writing and then proceeded to confess the entire thing to agents – which means the confession is likely admissible.

How Will Cavalcoli Defend Himself?

First and foremost, it is important to realize that the information presently available to defense lawyers is limited to the allegations filed by prosecutors in court.  From here, the next step is called “discovery”.  During discovery, lawyers for Cavalcoli will have a chance to view the evidence obtained by law enforcement.  This will include all the internet activity, IP address information, internet provider account holder information, the photographs, email messages, and especially the alleged confession.  While not all confessions are recorded, I am sure this one was.  Lawyers will also have access to the form signed by Cavalcoli when he waived his right to a lawyer.  Additionally, I am sure a surveillance team captured video footage of Cavalcoli walking into the hotel.  If such a video exists, it too will be disclosed to defense lawyers for their review.

The purpose of reviewing these materials is two-fold.  One, the defense lawyer’s first job is to see if the claims made by the prosecution in the Complaint are supported by the evidence.  To accomplish this task, the lawyer is looking for any conflicts in the evidence, any gaps in the evidence, any credibility issues with evidence, etc.

Second, a criminal attorney will then determine if there are any legal defenses.  For instance, if Cavalcoli did not in fact waive his Miranda Rights, as was alleged, then any statements he made while participating in custodial interrogation will become inadmissible in court.

Once a lawyer had the chance to thoroughly review and analyze the discovery, he/she must meet with Cavalcoli to review the evidence.  During this meeting, the lawyer is looking for any possible piece of information that the client may provide that can be used as a defense.  The purpose of reviewing discovery with the client is to also keep him/her informed and to explain the evidence that the Government has or does not have against him.  It is also to discuss the possibility or impossibility of any legal defenses.

Ultimately, a criminal attorney must determine whether or not there is reasonable chance of winning this case if it were to be challenged at trial.  From there, the client must be advised of his options, what the issues are, what the lawyer thinks will happen and eventually, a decision to proceed to trial or plead guilty must be made.

 What Does a Defendant Do If They Can’t Win at Trial?

Realistically speaking, I have been doing this long enough to know what direction most cases will take or not take before I even look at discovery.  The purpose of thoroughly reviewing discovery is to confirm that analysis and expectation.  There is no substitute for thorough legal work and review of every detail with a fine tooth comb… nothing can be taken for granted, even when guilt may seem obvious.

That said, what is a defendant to do if it seems like they have little or no chance of winning at trial?

Like I said before, cases like these are not about whether or not a defendant will go to prison… Federal sentencing statistics speak for themselves – 98% of all people prosecuted in Federal court serve some kind of prison sentence.

The real question is – how long?  This is where some of the best lawyering comes into play… by saving a sinking ship from sinking to the bottom.

To this end, Cavalcoli’s attorneys had better start handling this case like a first degree murder where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.  It starts from day one.  They need to obtain all his mental health, medical, scholastic, and social records going back as far as the rabbit hole will take them.

They also need to get a psycho-sexual evaluation performed on him by a reputable forensic psychologist.  I am not talking about a hired gun who will say anything for the right fee – lawyers, prosecutors, and judges all know who those clowns are.  I am talking about the real experts who are respected by all sides.

With a full psychological workup, a diagnosis can be made.  Clearly, if these allegations are true, Cavalcoli absolutely has some kind of mental health problem that can be identified and a treatment regimen can be recommended.

That said, you can’t walk into Federal court after trying to have sex with a 14 year old boy and cry that you are crazy.  Trust me, the judge and prosecutor already know that.

The next step includes a thorough analysis of the sentencing aspect of your case to make sure it is properly scored out insofar as sentencing guidelines are concerned.  While prosecutors will vehemently deny this, I have caught many making mistakes that could have lead to a higher minimum sentences than required by law.  In fact, when prosecutors disagree about what the minimum recommended sentence is, the whole battle in court may focus on the finer legal attributes of the sentencing code and those things a judge may or may not consider when determining sentence.

Ultimately, my estimation is that Cavalcoli’s best defense is one of mitigation.  To that end, defense lawyers need to build a complete dossier about his mental health, his achievements, his remorse and acceptance of responsibility, and next steps to prevent re-offense vis-a-vis treatment.  They need to counter all the negative with as much positive as can be so that a judge has real reasons to reduce a sentence by a meaningful amount of time.

Final Thoughts

I strongly suspect this case is still developing, even though Cavalcoli has already been arrested.  Since the likelihood that Cavalcoli has child pornography in his home or computers is great, I am certain law enforcement has already applied for a search warrant of his home and place of work.  You can count on the fact that all computers and electronic media storage devices will be seized and forensically analyzed by the FBI’s digital crime lab.

Ultimately, the one saving grace about this case is the fact that Cavalcoli was arrested before he got caught actually molesting a child.  If that were to occur, his prison sentence would be justifiably far greater.  While it may seem odd, law enforcement not only saved the community, but saved Cavalcoli from himself as well.

We will be following this case as it develops…