5 Years Late, Fake Sex Trafficking Case Crumples In Tenn. Fed. Court
Mar. 11, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Muslim Somali gang members. Secret meetings with a detective. Cross-country sex trafficking. A dramatic three-week federal criminal trial.
Sounds like the stuff of fiction. Maybe a good plot for one of those thrilling TV crime shows. And, indeed, it was fiction. But it probably didn’t feel like that to the 29 defendants who were charged in a Tennessee federal court with running a sinister juvenile sex trafficking ring that turned out to be, well, a bunch of kids being jackasses. But not trafficking sex slaves.
The case started out the way all good federal cases do; with a big Department of Justice press release touting the hammer that just fell on these evil criminals who dared to violate United States federal law. The guy who writes these press releases has the best job ever. There is no need to be concerned with “innocent until proven guilty” because that isn’t how it works in the federal system. The feds only arrest guilty people.
The press release made it clear this case was big-time. These were really bad dudes doing really bad stuff.
“Trafficking children for sex is intolerable and the Department of Justice will aggressively enforce trafficking and other laws to eliminate these types of deplorable acts,” said U.S. Attorney [Jerry] Martin. “As shown here today, law enforcement agencies at every level will come together to bring the full force of justice to bear on individuals who choose to profit by victimizing innocent children.”
It goes on. ICE, FBI, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation all made sure to get in on the party. The quotes make it clear this was a terrible, global, sophisticated, high-profit criminal syndicate. The only thing left out of the press release were directions to immediately begin digging cells under the prison for these international criminal masterminds.
So how much time did these guys get? 100 years? Life? Can we execute them?!?
Nope. Turns out the whole case was a fantasy, concocted by a mentally ill teenager and an overzealous cop. As of this week, every single defendant has walked away from this case a free man. Well, after a five-year federal prosecution, which some people might consider a pretty crappy way to spend half a decade. But whatever. Mistakes happen.
I have complained before about people and their blind obedience to our government when it prosecutes crime. Seems this case would present a perfect opportunity to reinforce the point. No way does a federal jury from the Middle District of Tennessee give a bunch of Muslims a fair trial in the current climate. Surely these guys don’t stand a chance.
Let me state that I was wrong, and let me apologize to the good people of Tennessee (at least the 12 people who sat on this jury). They didn’t blindly swallow the load of baloney the government was serving in this case, at least not entirely. Of the first nine defendants who went to trial, the jury found 3 guilty and 6 not guilty. Of course, only a federal prosecutor could call that a victory and an invitation to continue prosecuting.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Van Vincent said the verdict shows that the jury found that sex trafficking did occur and the government won’t cease prosecuting these cases.
“It’s very important for victims to understand that you can come forward, people will listen and that people can believe what you have to say about the crime,” Vincent said.
Shortly after this result, the district judge acquitted the three men found guilty, finding a problem with the government’s proof and that the government failed to turn over critical evidence about its witnesses. No convictions left. Assistant United States Attorney Vincent’s comments this time?
Assistant U.S. Attorney Van Vincent could not be reached for comment by telephone or email after business hours on Wednesday.
Funny how the press celebration changes when you are the loser. What happened to all the gushing comments about saving the world from sex trafficking?
At this point, surely the government was embarrassed enough to move on to calmer waters. There is always a little crack conspiracy out there to ease the pain of a big loss, right? But they didn’t want to let this one go. So off to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where the government hoped to fix this mess.
Every lawyer who handles federal criminal cases knows that getting a jury to say “not guilty” is as hard as winning the lottery. Getting a federal district judge, over a jury conviction, to find a defendant not guilty is like winning Powerball.
But on the off chance all of that happens, the feds know there is one place they can turn to for salvation. A federal appellate court typically spends its time covering the government’s butt by making it nearly impossible to escape the noose.
Now I have to apologize to a federal appellate court. Turns out the Sixth Circuit was in a “doing justice” mood last week, and really put the coup de grace to this case. In doing so, the Court did not mince words:
Before continuing, we acknowledge that we are proceeding, as we must, on the story the prosecution presented at trial, despite our acute concern, based on our painstaking review of the record, that this story of sex trafficking and prostitution may be fictitious and the prosecution’s two primary witnesses, Jane Doe 2 and Jane Doe 5, unworthy of belief…Given that all nine defendants were acquitted of all charges (six by the jury and three by the court), we merely recognize that we start our analysis from what is likely a fictitious story.
How on earth did this happen? The answer turns out to be a lying cop as the starting point. What! You can’t call a cop a liar! I didn’t. The Sixth Circuit did:
The district court opined that Officer Weyker likely exaggerated or fabricated important aspects of this story…[e]lsewhere, the district court caught Weyker lying to the grand jury and, later, lying during a detention hearing, and scolded her for it on the record.
St. Paul cop Heather Weyker was at the center of this case’s implosion. Surely she deserves contempt at best, and severe legal consequences at worse. Not so fast. Turns out at least one expert has an explanation for Weyker’s behavior.
“I don’t think it’s evil. It’s what we refer to as ‘noble cause’ corruption,” said Dr. Maki Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who specializes in police integrity and police training. “That defines situations in which police officers are tempted to fabricate facts in order to move their case forward, because if they don’t, then an otherwise guilty person will go free.”
And there’s your problem. The elusive “otherwise guilty person” that these lies target. This not a case of some guys getting away with murder because a liberal, “soft on crime” court let them walk on a technicality. A Tennessee jury and a Tennessee federal judge found they hadn’t committed the crimes they were accused of. A federal appeals court agreed. Weyker was as wrong as you can get.
Before we hang Weyker out to dry, what about those other agencies who were at the initial press conference? Federal prosecutors, ICE, FBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation?
So far, none of the agencies involved in the investigation have claimed a supervisory role.
At least the government has let this case go, though reluctantly.
“We’ve conducted a thorough review of the Sixth Circuit’s recent opinions and have considered all possible options for moving forward with this case in light of those opinions,” Boling [a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville] said.
In the end, justice was done, right? Maybe. Minneapolis attorney Gary Wolf’s client spent 54 months in jail waiting for the truth to come out. Four and a half years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Four and a half years for a case built on a lying cop’s investigation of a mentally ill teenager.
This isn’t justice. Justice would have been one of those federal agencies actually looking at this case five years ago and realizing it needed to be stopped long before it became an utter embarrassment to the federal criminal justice system.