Convicting traffickers Feature: Two women prosecutors in Ramsey County fight for women and girls
Yasmin Mullings, left, and Karen Kugler . Photography by Sarah Whiting
Trafficking in Minnesota
The January 2017 report to the Minnesota legislature, "Human Trafficking in Minnesota," reports that in 2015 service providers worked with 21 adult males, 319 adult females, 36 boys and 943 girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Law enforcement indicated they worked on 336 sex trafficking investigations, made 218 sex trafficking arrests, and filed 113 sex trafficking charges. The victims reported were from the Twin Cities, metro suburbs and greater Minnesota; seven other states and six other countries.
Minnesota cites with trafficking investigations included: Austin, Brainerd, Buffalo, Burnsville, Cass Lake, Forest Lake, Cottage Grove, Le Sueur, Long Lake, Luverne, Minneapolis, Moorhead, North Branch, Pipestone, Rochester, Roseville, Starbuck, Stillwater, St. Paul, Worthington and Woodbury.
by Mikki Morrisette
The day-to-day life of Yasmin Mullings and Karen Kugler consists of discovering how women and girls have been devalued - and holding others accountable for manipulating and selling them.
It's a daunting responsibility.
But together, they have a highly successful rate for prosecuting sex traffickers as leaders of the Joint Special Victims Unit of the Ramsey County District Attorney's office.
The unit is noted for getting convictions, and long prison sentences: Of 21 recent cases, 86 percent of defendants went to prison; half for at least 14 years. As a comparison, 54 percent of the prison sentences for similar crimes in Hennepin County were less than five years, and one-third of convictions led to workhouse and probation.
How do they do it?
Kugler and Mullings dedicate themselves to trafficking cases. Generally, prosecutors may handle 20-30 cases in a year, but they are assigned specifically to victims of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse - and are capped at 12 cases at a time.
On a day-to-day basis, their work includes meeting with investigators, securing services for victims, determining who to charge, preparing for trial, making court appearances and suggesting bail and sentencing to judges.
Some days the scheduled plans get put on hold - a call comes in about a new victim and plans change.
Another reason for their success is that, as their expertise deepens, so does their ability to educate juries that these are not victimless crimes. Mullings says that many jurors believe what they see sensationalized on TV shows and in the media and believe that "victims need to be chained to a bed if they are truly victims."
Often victims have been abused since childhood and are taught and groomed, sometimes by family and friends, to believe "what's the big deal? Why not make money this way?" Kugler says.
Many victims have been told that cops are not their friends. Sometimes the trafficking "family" is the only life they've known, or they've been manipulated into seeing the trafficker as a "boyfriend." It takes careful work to help victims trust law enforcement and learn that "families don't do this" - and to help jurors see even hostile or reluctant victims are deserving of justice.
Says Mullings: "You can see when a jury starts getting it; their whole countenance changes. The case is no longer about us wasting their time on a case where someone is 'just' having sex to get paid."
Telling the trafficking story
Mullings started her career working as a public defender, prosecutor, and private defense attorney in New York City, and has been with the Ramsey County district attorney's office since 2003. Kugler worked nine years with the Reinhardt & Anderson law firm, and was involved with cases of clergy sexual abuse and professional exploitation. She joined the Ramsey County office in 2008.
Kugler explains the reality of what these women face: In one case, a line of men were waiting to go into a room to have sex with one woman. A garbage can was full of condoms. "That poor woman is not volunteering for this," says Kugler. "Men have devalued women so much that they are willing to do that."
Making the case
Anything involving criminal law is stressful, Mullings says. Trafficking cases are especially complicated because "there are no witnesses calling 911. No cops immediately on the scene gathering evidence. It's like organized crime; hidden from public view. On the face, it seems to some like these are legitimate transactions. It's our job to show the underbelly."
Each of their cases might have eight different victims and at least five defendants. Because of the voluminous amount of details - searching cell phone data, examining social media posts, financials, and putting the pieces together to make connections - traffickers are increasingly learning how to hide from public view. Kugler and Mullings work together, talking over cases and information, debating which players should be charged.
On a regular basis, they are making decisions about how to tell stories most of the participants don't want told.
It is that hidden story that propelled Kugler into this work. Despite the stress, her passion for this justice work started years ago from "seeing people exploited - the power differential. It would drive me crazy to see how many were getting away with it, not being held criminally responsible," she says.
Mullings adds: "When a woman is robbed, she's not asked how close she was holding her purse to her body, or if it was a designer bag." Part of the job she and Kugler do every day is convince others "that women are not responsible for being sexually abused and sold."