Posted on May 11, 2022

Court Cites ‘Racist Rhetoric’ by Pierce County Prosecutor, Reverses Sex-Crime Conviction

Sean Robinson, The Olympian, May 7, 2022

Andre McKenzie’s 2019 conviction for attempted child rape and communication with a minor for immoral purposes fell apart because of two words: “gorilla pimp.”

The sex-trafficking term, invoked by Pierce County deputy prosecutor John Neeb during McKenzie’s trial, recently prompted a trio of state appeals court judges to reverse his conviction and six-year prison sentence.

While the words are familiar at street level, they didn’t belong in court, according to the Division III panel’s unanimous opinion, issued April 21.

“Racist rhetoric has no place in our justice system,” wrote Judge Rebecca Pennell. “It is hurtful, thwarts due process, and undermines the rule of law.”

Neeb, who voluntarily retired from the prosecutor’s office in February after 30 years of service, said in a recent interview that he did not use the term in a racial context.

“I have never once injected racial overtones into a trial, and I didn’t do it in McKenzie,” he said.

The appeals court disagreed.

“At this point in our history, we should not have to belabor the point that using a gorilla analogy when discussing human behavior, specifically the behavior of a Black man, is clearly racist rhetoric,” the opinion stated.

McKenzie, 32, was arrested in 2018 along with 20 other men as part of a “Net Nanny” operation conducted by the State Patrol. He exchanged text messages with a detective posing as an underage girl then drove from Seattle to meet her in Puyallup, intending to have sex, according to court records.

While the victim did not exist, McKenzie’s intent led to the charges. A jury convicted him in December 2019.

The trial included testimony from State Patrol detective Carlos Rodriguez, who had posed as the underage girl. Questioned by McKenzie’s defense attorney, Mark Quigley, the detective explained the context of the text message exchanges with McKenzie.

At one point, Quigley asked whether McKenzie intended to act as a pimp for the fictitious young girl. In text message exchanges preserved in court records, McKenzie had denied such interest.

During a redirect examination of Rodriguez, Neeb followed up on the idea. The appeals court decision quotes the testimony:

“The prosecutor initiated the following exchange:

Q: Are you familiar with the terms gorilla pimp and romance pimp?

A: Yes.

Q: What are those?

A: A gorilla pimp is someone who is very aggressive. They’re very direct. They’re going to tell you what they want. ‘This is what you’re going to do.’

I’ve had them try to get me or the people they’re victimizing to pay them for that. For them to be sexually exploited, they actually want the victim to pay them for it. As far as a romance pimp, they’re going to come across as your boyfriend or your friend. They’re going to romance you, get you into the situation where then they have control. They can continue to play the romance role or they can switch to a more aggressive pimp or they can go back and forth.”

Quigley did not object, and Neeb did not refer to the “gorilla pimp” term again, according to court records, but the court’s opinion contends the exchange tainted the trial.

“No witness had used this terminology and the issue of pimping had minimal relevance,” the opinion states. “The only purpose served by referencing the gorilla pimp concept was to tap into deep seated racial prejudice by comparing Black human beings to primates. The State cannot prove that this racist rhetoric was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”


Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett retains the option to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. That won’t happen, spokesperson Adam Faber said:

“Even before (the) decision, our office has been training deputy prosecutors on avoiding this type of language. {snip}”


Robnett’s office has another decision to ponder: whether to pursue a new trial for McKenzie and seek another conviction.

“We are reviewing the evidence and weighing our options,” Faber said.