Sex Trafficking Trial Unusual in Scope

Brandon Gee, The Tennessean, February 28, 2012

Nearly two dozen defendants accused of participating in an interstate sex trafficking ring are scheduled to go before a federal jury next month in what is shaping up to be one of the biggest—and most unusual—trials in Middle Tennessee history.

In an era when limited resources and risk aversion have resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of cases that end in plea agreements rather than jury trials, not even one of the 30 defendants in the case has agreed to plead guilty, setting the stage for a massive trial in downtown Nashville that is raising a variety of issues both legal and logistical.

Twenty-nine people, mostly Somalis from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, were charged in November 2010 with running a prostitution ring that sold Somali girls as young as 12 years of age in cities including Nashville. A 30th defendant was indicted in May 2011. {snip}

Seven defendants—including two who have not yet been apprehended—have been severed from the trial scheduled to begin March 20 and will be tried later. Even so, longtime prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee said it is shaping up to be the largest number of defendants to go to trial at once in federal court in Nashville, if not U.S., history.

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Observers are chalking up the lack of plea agreements in the case to a number of factors.

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“The Somalis have a cultural thing about testifying against each other,” said former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee Ed Yarbrough, who agreed that the trial is on course to be the largest, in terms of the number of defendants, in Nashville history. “I think it’s cultural. That’s what I’ve been told.”

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While the lack of plea agreements is surprising to some, Minneapolis Police Department Officer Jeanine Brudenell said it’s not unusual when dealing with Somali defendants. The Twin Cities are home to the largest Somali population in North America, and Brudenell is her department’s designated “East African community engagement officer.”

“There is a slim possibility that some people would take plea agreements, but it wouldn’t be until last minute,” Brudenell said. “Most of the time, they will probably go through the trial process.”

Having immigrated from a country with no functional government, many Somalis are accustomed to resolving problems within small communities, Brudenell said, and that mindset colors the way they approach the American justice system.

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There has been at least one alleged incident of witness tampering in the case proceeding toward trial in Nashville. Three Twin Cities women—Hawo Osman Ahmed, Ifrah Abdi Yassin and Hamdi Ahmed Mohamud—were charged in June in a five-count indictment that includes charges of “conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, victim or informant.”

The three women threatened a witness identified only by the initials “MA” and then attacked her in her Minnesota apartment building elevator, according to the charges.

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Finally, noting their defendants’ presumed innocence before trial, many of the defense attorneys said there may be a far simpler reason none of the defendants reached plea agreements: They didn’t do it.

“They maintain their innocence,” said Nashville lawyer Patrick Frogge, who represents Haji Osman Salad in the case. “I think a lot of the defendants are looking forward to their day in court.”

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The trial, expected to last months, will require modifications of Haynes’ courtroom to ensure there is enough space for the defendants and attorneys. The judge also has granted the defendants’ request to take breaks consistent with Muslim prayer times.

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