The federal courthouse in downtown Nashville was abuzz on Friday, Jan. 20. Outside, Occupy Nashville staged a small protest against corporate greed, using theatrics to hammer home their point.
But eight stories above, in courtroom A859, there was no acting.
Somali women, their heads wrapped in colorful cloth, smiled and waved to their family members and friends as 28 handcuffed defendants entered the room. Some of the accused returned the greetings. A federal marshal quickly stepped into the crowd and reminded one of the women in the crowd that she can wave, but can’t communicate with the defendants.
She mouthed words to one of the men in jumpsuits when the marshal turned his back.
The interaction was surprisingly cordial considering the violent, socially deviant nature of the defendants’ alleged crimes. According to the federal indictment, the defendants all played a role in child sex trafficking. They are charged with transporting pre-teens and teens between three states and forcing them to engage in commercial sex acts.
The defendants are all associates or members of gangs like the Somali Mafia, the Somali Outlaws and the Lady Outlaws, according to the government.
“I would call this one of the more significant cases we’ve investigated in recent memory,” said John Morton, director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, at the time of the indictment in November 2010.
Since then, the case has slowly inched its way toward trial. More than 1,200 motions, orders and other court proceedings have been filed in the past 15 months.
The defendants — and their counsel of 28 separate lawyers, mostly court-appointed — were in the courtroom on Jan. 20 for a proceeding to discuss several of the pressing issues facing the mega-trial.
When Judge William Haynes heard an order to set a later trial date, all of the counsel objected — and one-by-one they had to stand and voice their opposition. The extended process was a foreshadowing of the trial to come.
One of the main concerns in pretrial chatter among the attorneys is regarding the location of the months-long trial. As of press time, the trial is pegged to start on March 20 at the federal courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., roughly 45 miles south of Nashville. Haynes, who is trying the case, said the courtroom setup in Columbia would be more conducive to the multidefendant trial.
In Nashville, only 12 benches are available for 28 defendants, attorneys, paralegals, government officials and the increased security presence of federal marshals. There also needs to be table space for exhibits, witnesses and federally mandated rows for members of the public.
Some people — including the marshals — involved in the case have griped about its placement in Columbia.
“I understand there is some grumbling and mumbling about the trial of this case in Columbia,” Haynes said at a court proceeding on Jan. 9. “And I understand there is a bunch of politicking going on with the Marshal’s Office to get [the case] moved.”
“[Columbia] will allow many more tables to be provided, so that each lawyer and each defense counsel and the defendant have adequate table space. And I think it’s particularly important, given what has been the extraordinary amount of documents generated in this case.”
But the courthouse in Columbia has its limitations as well. According to Haynes, there is only one two-person cell at the courthouse. However, there is vacant office space on the first floor of the Columbia building that could be used as a makeshift jail.
“It seemed to the Court that perhaps, with some security modifications, that that space could be available to hold the defendants before we begin trial and during recesses,” Haynes said, according to court transcripts.
However, during the proceeding on Jan. 20, Haynes changed his tune. Due to a special courtroom configuration, he said it was “likely” that the case will be tried in Nashville. An audible sigh of relief came from the courtroom crowd of lawyers — who apparently weren’t looking forward to a 90-mile round trip on a daily basis for months. As of press time though, an official order moving the case to Nashville hadn’t been filed.
The location isn’t the only business that needs to be taken care of before the trial begins. Myriad legal, technical and logistical issues will also be decided over the next seven weeks.
Among the items discussed at the meeting Jan. 20:
• The court scheduled an exhibit review conference, so that the defense counsel and their defendants will be able to review the case and form a defense. The paperwork involved will cost the government $23,000 for copies for all of the defendants, according to U.S. attorney Van Vincent. Haynes denied a request by Vincent to disseminate the exhibit information electronically.
• The federal prosecution team asked about travel arrangements, requesting that the plea deadline be at least two weeks before the trial start so that they have time to book flights for witnesses.
• The attorneys compared schedules and approved a date for an evidentiary hearing for pretrial motions on March 2.
• One attorney motioned for a change of venue to court in Minnesota because that’s where most of the defendants are from. Haynes said he believes either district would be appropriate, but he has repeatedly denied those motions because the case already has too many proceedings.
Aside from administrative issues, there are also several pressing legal matters in the case. In a proceeding on Jan. 9, several lawyers expressed concern over how witnesses would be questioned.
Haynes suggested that the defense counsel get together and come up with a collective defense and questions to help expedite the trial, as long as there is no conflict of interest.
“To me, all the lawyers are well experienced, but it seems to me the synergism of having the benefit of all of that input as to what to ask a witness provides more effective assistance of counsel than if you relied just upon the ability or skills of an individual counsel,” Haynes said.
Haynes also argued collaboration could help attorneys who have only recently been assigned to the lengthy case.
The other main legal matter in the case is that none of the alleged Somali sex traffickers have pleaded guilty as of press time.
Former U.S. District Judge for Middle Tennessee Robert Echols, now a lawyer at Bass, Berry & Sims, has experience with large criminal cases — and said it will be unusual if the case goes to trial without any pleas.
“Sometimes the government will offer a deal. … If you testify XYZ, then they may give you a lighter sentence or some consideration in reducing the sentence,” Echols said. But he emphasized that there’s still a possibility of a guilty plea before the trial date.
Echols faced several multi-defendant drug and gang-related cases during his 18 years behind the gavel — and he has a hunch about how the government might approach the prosecution.
“The government’s process — I’m just looking from the outside, but I’ve looked through that tunnel a lot — is they oftentimes will nibble around the edges and look and see what people on the fringes know about the case. They usually look at those people to gather information about people in the center,” Echols said. “It’s kind of like building a spider web. … Oftentimes that will crash in, and you’ll see [a defendant] that really gets nervous [and pleads guilty].”
Echols said he would be surprised if the case proceeds on March 20 without any pleas, considering the stringent process the U.S. has to go through to indict suspects.
“The general rule is the government won’t indict them unless they can convict them,” Echols said. “The Department of Justice has pretty high standards, so it’s not just throwing a rock in the water.”
The large trial will also bring up challenges for the man behind the bench, according to Echols.
“It’s a complicated process, but you have to approach it steps at a time and make two steps at relatively the same time,” Echols said. “It’s a tough job for any judge to manage it and ensure that everyone is treated fairly and no one is discriminated against in any way.”
But one thing is for certain — the trial will begin on March 20 in Nashville or Columbia. And no matter how long it takes and how many motions are filed, 28 people are facing lengthy jail sentences.
As the defendants were led out of the courtroom on Jan. 20, a silence fell over the Somali community members who came to the hearing. One woman covered her face and wept openly.
“It is too sad,” a woman comforting her said. “Too sad.”