In a case that drew broad media attention, a Greenwich Village psychic, Sylvia Mitchell, 39, was sentenced in New York Supreme Court last week to 5 to 15 years’ imprisonment for defrauding clients of over $100,000.  The media’s focus undoubtedly arose from the irony of a successful fraud prosecution against a practice that everyone knows is fake.  What’s next on the radar of the District Attorney, professional wrestling?  Nonetheless, the gullibility of the victim is no defense against fraud. 

Prosecutors originally offered Mitchell a plea without jail time.  (“Judge Gives Fortuneteller In Manhattan 5 to 15 years,” Michael Wilson, The New York Times, November 15, 20013, p. A27 (“NYT”)).  This may have reflected the DA’s uncertainty about a conviction but also likely reflected Mitchell’s status as a first time offender with two teenage children.  After a jury convicted her, the DA recommended a three to nine-year sentence, but the Court sentenced above that recommendation.

What got Mitchell into trouble with the law was not the falsity of any predictions, but rather, the falsity of what she claimed she could do for her clients and her vision into the past.  Mitchell’s former attorney stated that Mitchell wasn’t predicting the future.  Rather, she told her clients that she would pray for them and perform rituals to get rid of any negativity she sensed around them.  (“Sylvia Mitchell, NYC Psychic Gets Prison In 6 Figure Scam Case, ” Jennifer Peltz, Huffington Post, “Huff Post New York,” 11/14/13 (“Huff Post”).  One client testified that she paid more than $120,000 after Mitchell promised she would help rout “negative energy.”  (“Huff Post”).  How is this any different than the promises of most organized religions or any New Age psychotherapist?  But Mitchell also told that victim that the victim’s unrequited crush on a fellow office worker resulted from the victim’s family having harmed the crush in a prior life.  (Huff Post).  While this statement is not within the realm of rational thought, it is still within the realm of “magical thinking,” as Bill Maher would put it, that affects a good portion of this country. 

Another client testified that Mitchell told her that the client had been an Egyptian princess in the past and she needed to break her attachment to money.  Mitchell convinced her to hand over $27,000 to hold, only some of which was refunded.  (“Huff Post”).  This is the stuff of which typical fraud charges are made, but alone, would not be a sufficient loss to sustain a 5 to 15 year sentence. 

The prosecution portrayed Mitchell as a predator on people with insecurities or who were in emotional difficulties.  The defense asserted that people hired Mitchell to assist and there was no evidence that she did not assist.  (“Huff Post).  One assumes that Mitchell turned down a no-jail plea deal believing a jury would view her work as an expensive life coach. 

There is a plethora of psychics’ storefront parlors in New York City.  Apparently, they have a sufficient stream of income to pay high rents.  One can only assume their success comes from repeat customers who do not visit for the entertainment value.  May we expect a roundup of psychics by the DA in the near future?

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