NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal appeals court excoriated the government for its handling of a sex trafficking case involving Somali gang members, saying one of the investigators was repeatedly caught lying and the so-called victims in the case had serious issues with credibility.
The 6th U.S. Court of Appeals said U.S. District Judge William Haynes had good reason to throw out guilty verdicts involving three men who were convicted by a jury in 2012 of sex-trafficking conspiracy.
The three men were part of a case involving 30 people who were all accused of being part of a multistate child sex trafficking operation that took place in in Minnesota, Ohio and Tennessee. The federal appeals court said the claims of sex trafficking are likely "fictitious."
One of the unidentified girls in the case, identified as Jane Doe No. 2 in court documents, was a party girl who came from a conservative Muslim family and didn't want the shame of admitting to her community that she was promiscuous, defense attorneys have said.
"It is such a relief for these people who have lived through a nightmare for years," said Jennifer Thompson, a Nashville attorney who represents Idris Fahra, one of the three men whose conviction was overturned.
Thompson said the government was desperate to make this case much bigger than what it was.
"They were taking some teenagers who were behaving very badly — they were runaways, they were just out-of-control, very Americanized teenagers — and they tried to make it into a sex- trafficking Somali gang," Thompson said.
After the opinion Wednesday, St. Paul Minnesota Police Sgt. Heather Weyker was placed on paid administrative leave.
The opinion noted that the lower court "caught Weyker lying to the grand jury and later lying during a detention hearing, and scolded her for it on the record."
Public records do not list a number for Weyker. Police officials in St. Paul said they were disturbed by the court's findings.
"As soon as we were made aware of it we began an internal affair investigation to gather more facts and to determine exactly what happened, and once that investigation is complete we'll take appropriate steps to respond to our findings," St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders said.
The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S Attorney Van Vincent, declined to comment, saying he had not yet read the opinion.
Several of the defendants in the case have spent years in jail.
"My estimate is you have about $10 million of public money wasted on this case," said attorney David Komisar, an attorney for another one of the men. "You have defendants' lives wasted on this case. There are other defendants who are still in jail who have not gone to trial. It will be interesting to see what the government choses to do going forward."
Komisar represents Yassin Yusef, 26, who has spent more than four years in jail. He had consensual sex with the teenager known as Jane Doe No. 2, his attorney said. He is still behind bars awaiting release.
There are questions about the teen's age because her birth certificate is fake, defense attorneys said.
The appeals court opinion, written by Judge Alice Batchelder, noted that Jane Doe No. 2 was a habitual runaway who had been in juvenile detention.
The officer recorded her meetings with the teen, the opinion said, and they "produced a story in which Jane Doe 2 was not a troubled runaway or a juvenile delinquent, but was instead an innocent child taken in by a Somali gang who used her for sex, either as a prostitute or for free with gang members."