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7th Circuit upholds conviction in minor’s prostitution case

May 10, 2019

A man failed to persuade a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel that he should be granted a continuance and be acquitted from his conviction of transporting a 15-year-old girl for prostitution across state lines. The panel concluded the case was unnecessarily prolonged and would exact an emotional toll on the victim if further extended.

In February 2015, runaway T.L. met Ronnie Cosby, who told her to repay him by prostituting herself in exchange for drugs and alcohol. She did, and Cosby later transported T.L. from Indiana to Lansing, Illinois, where she was prostituted to several individuals over a four-day period.

Cosby then drove himself and T.L. back to Indiana to meet with a potential “client.” Police who were searching for T.L.  eventually found her without Cosby, interviewed her, and arrested Cosby after finding him several weeks later. Law enforcement obtained a state warrant to search the apartment where T.L. was found and confiscated Cosby’s phone.

A federal grand jury first indicted Cosby on one count of knowingly transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent that she engage in prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a). Nearly three years later, Cosby was denied his sixth motion for continuance when the Northern Indiana District Court noted that the case was “not particularly complicated.”   

An FBI agent provided expert testimony on sex trafficking and said that she did not “participate in the investigation of this case in particular,” had “no knowledge of the facts,” and was unaware that the case involved a Lansing motel.

Cosby moved for a mistrial, arguing the agent testified falsely, as she had met with the manager of the Lansing hotel the day that T.L. was located after being asked for her expertise. The district court ultimately denied his motion, finding that the agent did not lie, but rather “merely misremembered.” It further denied Cosby’s initial and renewed motions for acquittal on his conviction.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in USA v. Ronnie Cosby, 18-2053, concluding that all of Cosby’s claims of error failed. 

It relied on its weighty consideration that the case was trial-ready and pending for more than 2½ years, ultimately infringing on fairness to T.L. and the emotional toll it would cause her.

The 7th Circuit then noted that denial of Cosby’s motion to continue was not an abuse of discretion for several reasons, including the fact that his counsel had been granted two prior continuances, had more than nine months to prepare for trial, and that the six-day trial was not substantively complex.  

It further found sufficient evidence to support Cosby’s conviction, rejecting his argument that the state failed to prove he had intended T.L. to engage in prostitution when he transported her from the motel in Illinois to Murphy’s apartment in Indiana, because T.L. did not engage in prostitution for two days after they returned to Indiana.

The 7th Circuit also acknowledged that while it was troubled by the government’s failure to immediately correct the FBI agent’s testimony, there was no evidence that she deliberately lied about her rather inconsequential involvement.

“Nothing that the agent omitted from her initial testimony calls into question her earlier expert opinions and, even if it did, the district court did not err in letting the jury determine what weight to give her testimony, rather than declaring a mistrial,” Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve wrote for the panel.

Additionally, it found that the agent did not testify in a “dual capacity” as both an expert and fact witness, pointing out that it’s unclear if she even testified as a fact witness. Even if she had and there was plain error, the 7th Circuit determined, it did not affect Cosby’s substantial rights.

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