NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to dismiss all the remaining charges in a child sex trafficking case involving Somali gang members. The request is likely to bring an end to a highly controversial case that has left several defendants jailed for years without a single conviction of a sex-related crime. The case also raises the possibility that a police officer repeatedly lied to obtain a prosecution.
Defendants, most of them from the Somali refugee community, have been fighting for years after the government announced in 2010 that law enforcement had taken down a multi-state child sex trafficking ring that operated in Minnesota, Ohio and Tennessee.
"I think what happened to these individuals in this case was absolutely a travesty of justice," said Luke Evans, a lawyer for one of the defendants who was earlier acquitted by a jury. "And because of the actions taken by law enforcement in this case, they have done tremendous damage to the true victims of sex trafficking across this country."
The government's request to drop cases against the remaining 16 people — about 30 people had been charged — came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week blasted prosecutors for its handling of the case. The federal appeals court said a police officer with the St. Paul Minnesota Police Department was repeatedly caught lying and said the claims by the so-called victims were likely fictitious.
The opinion, written by Judge Alice Batchelder, noted that the two primary witnesses in a 2012 trial had serious credibility issues. Both had testified that they were prostituted by gang members. But the opinion noted that one of them was mentally ill and was off her medication during trial and the other was a frequent runaway who had been in juvenile detention.
Defense attorneys have maintained that the girl identified as Jane Doe No. 2 was a party girl who came from a conservative Muslim family and didn't want the shame of admitting that she was promiscuous. During trial, it was revealed that the girl's birth certificate was a fake. Defense attorneys alleged her birth certificate was a fake and repeatedly said she was too old to be a victim of child sex-trafficking and instead portrayed her as an older person who willingly had sex with multiple men.
Only nine of the defendants were tried in 2012. A jury acquitted six of them and U.S. District Judge William Haynes threw out the convictions of the remaining three. The 6th Circuit's opinion last week said Haynes was right to overturn those remaining jury convictions.
The appeals court opinion noted that the case involved two gangs — the Somali Mafia and the Somali Outlaws — but said the government produced no information about their organization, culture and activities beyond testimony that some claimed to be in a gang or flashed gang signs.
The appellate court opinion only addressed those involved in the 2012 trial.
"We have 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," a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Tennessee said. "After much consideration, we have determined that the best course of action is to dismiss the charges against all remaining defendants."
The spokesman said he did not know how much the case has cost the government.
St. Paul, Minnesota, Police Sgt. Heather Weyker met repeatedly with Jane Doe No. 2. The appeals court opinion said a 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 her phone number.
The St. Paul Police Department placed her on paid administrative leave and launched an internal affairs investigation following the court opinion's release. Weyker is back on duty, but not doing any investigative work. Police officials are awaiting more information from federal agencies that led the case before taking any more action against Weyker, St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders said.