NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal trial involving more than a dozen defendants accused in a sex trafficking ring run by Somali gangs has faced a series of delays.
U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes again this week ordered jurors to return on Monday as defense attorneys argued that the defendants, many of whom are refugees from Somalia, were juveniles at the time the alleged crimes occurred.
The indictment said three gangs called the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws were forcing teenage girls into prostitution and operated in St. Paul, Minn.; Minneapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and Nashville.
After selecting a jury last month, the trial was delayed last week when prosecutors turned over thousands of documents and audio recordings from the investigation to defense attorneys on the eve of trial. Both defense attorneys and federal prosecutors have repeatedly declined to comment about the case.
The indictment, which was originally unsealed in 2010 and amended by a superseding indictment in 2011, says the defendants, many of them from the Somali immigrant communities in Minneapolis and Nashville, were members or associates of the three gangs. Four unidentified victims, some of who were under the age of 14, are listed in the indictment.
The indictment accuses the gangs of finding and recruiting young girls for the purpose of prostitution in exchange for money and drugs between 2000 and 2010.
Out of the 30 individuals listed in the indictment, only 14 are going to trial this month in Nashville on charges of conspiracy to commit sexual trafficking of children by force, fraud or coercion and charges related to the sexual trafficking. Many of the individuals have remained in federal custody since their arrests in 2010.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Van Vincent declined to say why the government dropped some of the counts related to one of the victims shortly before the trial was scheduled to start. However, another victim, who is identified only as Jane Doe (hash)2, is expected to testify in the trial that is expected to take at least two months.
Many, but not all the defendants, are described as refugees who came to the United States as young children. Police have relied on immigration paperwork to determine their ages, but defense attorneys have argued in court that information in those documents are routinely incorrect due to cultural and language issues.
One defendant, Abdirahman Abdirazak Hersi, has a date of birth listed in police records as Feb. 20, 1990, but his mother testified in court Wednesday that he had been born in Somalia on Dec. 1, 1991, and that her sister was incorrectly listed as his mother in immigration records.
His attorney has asked the judge to dismiss some of the charges against his client because he would have been a juvenile at the time of the offenses and he never had a juvenile status hearing that would determine whether he would face the charges as an adult.
Two other defendants are making similar arguments.