Human trafficking cases joined

When Loc Bao Tran, 32, appears for his pretrial conference at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot on Wednesday it will be under different circumstances than previous appearances.

A ruling dated June 4 by North Central Judicial District Presiding Judge William McLees joined Tran’s Class A felony human trafficking case with the case of Trina Phuong Nguyen, 32, who is charged with the same crime that stemmed from the same alleged operation.

The state alleges that Tran and Nguyen jointly operated a brothel in Minot until May 29, 2013, when the business was shut down by police. The two are believed to have employed several Vietnamese women under the pretenses of massage to actually perform sexual services, including but not limited to intercourse, to VIP clients of “The Mann’s Club.”

While the former location on Third Street Northeast, attached to a local brewpub, is currently an upscale-looking dance studio, police allege that the business appeared much differently under the control of Tran and Nguyen. Only the initials of the business, “T.M.C.,” written on a scrap of paper advertised the business to the outside world. Behind the big windows, which were plastered with paper from the inside so that people on the street couldn’t see in, were allegedly bare mattresses on the floor separated by curtains where the business took place.

Deputy Ward County State’s Attorney Kelly Dillon, the prosecutor for the now-joined case, had written a motion for joinder on March 20.

“(Rules for joinder) provides that two or more cases may be tried together if the offenses and the defendants could have been joined in a single complaint,” she wrote in her motion. “Such is the case with these files.”

Despite the objections of the attorneys for both defendants, McLees found in favor of the state’s argument.

“Nguyen argues that ‘several recorded statement (sic) sbetween (sic) her and Mr. Tran were recorded and transcribed by the FBI. If either of their statements are admitted into evidence, this would violate the Bruton rule and also the right to confront witnesses under the U.S. Consitution,” McLees wrote in his order, summarizing an argument by Nguyen’s attorney Gregory Scott Hoover, of Seattle, which used precedent set in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Bruton v. United States in opposition to the motion.

The finding in that case is that “admission at a joint trial of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession” could incriminate the other codefendent and, thus, would be in opposition to each defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses.

“The Court concludes Nguyen’s conclusory assertions of a Bruton violation flowing from the admission into evidence of statements made during recorded conversations between herself and Tran do not support Nguyen’s contention … that the Court should order separate trials,” McLees wrote in his order. “[A]ny such statements will not automatically be admissible in evidence. The same would be hearsay if offered against a co-defendant, and will be admissible only if such statements come within a recognized exception to the hearsay rule.”

Tran’s arguments against joinder are different than that of Nguyen’s. He asserts that Nguyen’s prior convictions for prostitution and related offenses “will be prejudicial to his cause,” summarized McLees, “creating a ‘spillover effect.'”

“It’s guilt by association,” Robert Wade Martin, Tran’s appointed attorney, had said at the May 14 hearing to argue for or against joinder.

McLees wrote that a trial must follow rules of law and that the “very same argument was rejected by the North Dakota Supreme Court in State V. Purdy … State v. Stridiron … and State v. Wamre,” which all stated that “[b]are assertions that a defendant would stand a better chance of acquittal in a separate trial or that there may be some ‘spillover effect’ from evidence against a codefendant is insufficient to compel severance.”

“In light of the forgoing analysis, and with the Court specifically finding that neither of these Defendants has met his/her burden of demonstrating prejudicial joinder, the Court will grant the state’s motion to Join for Trial,” McLees wrote in his concluding paragraph.