More than 14 months after being indicted on sex-trafficking charges, 15 Somali immigrants finally had the first of many days in federal court on March 20. So far, the courtroom has lacked fireworks, completing mostly administrative moves.
Jury selection and other motions occupied the first week of the trial before Judge William Haynes decided to stay the trial for a week and allow defense attorneys extra time to review new evidence related to a witness.
But outside of Haynes’ courtroom, several filings give an interesting glimpse at what could become key turning points in the trial. One of the defendants — all are accused of conspiring to traffic young girls between Columbus, Ohio, Minneapolis and Nashville — reached a plea deal with the government on March 23.
Meanwhile, the U.S. prosecution team abandoned a witness, known as Jane Doe 1, which is raising questions among the defense about the credibility of other witnesses.
Prior to the trial beginning in March, discussion swirled about the stark lack of plea agreements in the sex trafficking trial. None of the 30 defendants reached a deal with the government before the trial began. (Haynes severed 15 defendants into an adjoining case in the weeks leading up to the trial.)
Typically, the government will offer sentencing breaks to defendants in exchange for guilty pleas on lesser charges. The City Paper spoke with former U.S. District Judge for Middle Tennessee Robert Echols in January, who said it would be unusual if the case went to trial without any pleas.
Some observers speculated that Somali gang culture frowned upon snitching — which could create an obstacle for the prosecution and explain the lack of pleas.
But on March 26, defendant Abdifitah Adan had a plea deal accepted. Adan had two sex trafficking charges dropped — conspiring to human trafficking and conspiring to benefit financially from human trafficking. In exchange, Adan pleaded guilty to “making a material false statement.”
According to court filings, the two trafficking charges carried maximum life sentences and fines up to $250,000. The false statement charge could result in 12 to 18 months imprisonment and a fine between $1,000 and $10,000 based on Adan’s lawyer’s estimate.
Attorneys are prohibited from speaking with media during the trial.
Adan wasn’t the last defendant to have charges dropped last week. All of the charges related to witness Jane Doe 1 were dismissed by the government’s prosecution team on March 26.
That action has put the defense team on the offensive. Defendant Fatah Haji’s lawyer, John Oliva, filed a request for information on why Jane Doe 1 was suddenly dropped, arguing that it could also affect the credibility of Jane Doe 2.
“In the months prior to trial, the government represented to undersigned counsel (and presumably other defendants’ counsel) that he knew that JD2 was being truthful, in part, because of the information received from JD1,” Oliva wrote.
“As such, the information that caused the government to abandon the counts involving JD1 has a direct impact on the strength of other remaining parts of the government’s case, particularly those involving JD2.”
Oliva’s request stems from the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which provides that the prosecution has a duty to disclose evidence that is favorable to the accused. He also asks for “favorable” evidence related to sealed settlement offer hearings, including Adan’s, on March 21.
“At the very least, [the information] is impeachment evidence. At best, it exculpates one or more of the defendants. Therefore, this favorable information should be disclosed to all of the defendants’ counsel,” Oliva wrote. “Without this information, there is no assurance that there would be sufficient confidence in any verdict against any of the defendants.”
Oliva addresses concerns over the timing of his request by pointing to a 6th Circuit decision that states the Brady law is not violated if material is disclosed in time for “its effective use at trial.”
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin filed a notice in opposition of Oliva’s motion, claiming there were no Brady materials contained in the various charges associated with Jane Doe 1 and the and the settlement hearings.
Several of the remaining defendants filed joinders on Oliva’s motion, but as of press time Haynes had yet to rule on the request.
The trial is scheduled to resume with opening arguments on Wednesday. Court documents suggest the arguments will take two days to complete — and that Jane Doe 2 could take the witness stand this week.
Jane Doe 2 is represented by Lea Carol Owen, a partner at Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis. She has filed several motions, including a request to have an adult attendant accompany her on the stand.
Defense attorney David Kumisar, who’s representing Yassin Yusuf, called the motion “sheer Hollywood,” claiming questions still remain over whether Jane Doe 2 is a minor. According to Kumisar and other defense attorneys, the man who claims to be Jane Doe 2’s father immigrated to the U.S. in August 1993. Therefore, Jane Doe 2’s alleged birthday of Sept. 10, 1994, in Africa, would be biologically impossible — and place her age in doubt. But the government has denied requests for a DNA test. Kumisar also said other evidence proves Jane Doe 2 is comfortable talking about sex.
“The request for an adult attendant is nothing more than a ruse to influence the jury,” Kumisar wrote in an opposition filing. “After listening to hours of audio tapes between her and Abdullahi Farah ... it is abundantly clear that JD2 has no shyness or reluctance in speaking of sexual topics in the most sailor-like fashion to someone she has never even met.”
Derri Smith, the executive director of End Slavery Tennessee, wrote in a declaration filed with the court that sexual abuse victims can exhibit “seductive behavior” as a symptom of victimization. Haynes hadn’t issued an order on Jane Doe 2’s testimony as of press time.
But if the court filings during the trial’s “off-week” are any indication, both sides are gearing up for the contentious legal fight.
[Editor’s note: Last Friday, after deadline, Haynes granted the motion for DNA testing on Jane Doe 2. According to the order, she and the man said to be her father, Hassan, would be tested in New Brighton, Minn., on Tuesday, April 3, for the purpose of determining paternity.]