By: JESSICA SKOCIK
Four women previously unconnected are now bonded forever by the experience of being sex trafficked by Monta Groce, a local heroin dealer turned sex-trafficker in Sparta, Wisconsin. Groce advertised his victims on Backpage.com and paid other drug addicts to drive them to calls while he controlled the women through threats, physical violence, and capitalizing on their desperation.
Recruitment and Control Through Heroin Addiction
When Lisa Tischer met Groce in November 2012, she was nineteen-years-old suffering from a heroin addiction, and on drug-related probation. Groce, preying on her desperate situation, convinced Tischer to believe that he had romantic feelings for her. When she lost her job and violated her probation, Groce stepped in and offered her a place to stay. At first, Groce gave Tischer heroin at little to no cost to stave off her withdrawal symptoms. But Groce recognized an economic opportunity when he saw one. Groce told Tischer that if she loved him, she would have sex for money for him. Crippled by her addiction and her belief in Groce’s sincere feelings for her, Tischer began prostituting for him.
The arrangement quickly became abusive. Groce required Tischer to prostitute before giving her heroin. If she disobeyed him, he punished her by cutting off her supply, forcing her to go through intense withdrawal symptoms. Groce also burned her face with cigarettes, beat her, and called her names. When Tischer talked to the police, Groce threatened to rape and kill her mother and sister. Finally, with the help of Mirika Stuhr, another person Groce exploited, Tischer found a ride and escaped from Groce’s clutches.
Mirika Stuhr, a twenty-one-year-old woman, met Groce in November 2012 after her mother died from a drug overdose. After her mother’s death, Stuhr began using heroin and Groce became her dealer, eventually inviting her to come live with him. Stuhr’s role in helping Tischer escape enraged Groce, who then forced Stuhr to take Tischer’s place prostituting for him. Groce took advantage of Stuhr’s addiction by cutting off her free heroin supply and instead charging her $50 each time she bought heroin from him. This allowed Groce to keep Stuhr in perpetual debt to him, as he only gave her $40 of the $100 she would make from prostituting. Groce also charged Stuhr if she missed prostitution calls, unplugged phone while she cleaned his house, or took too long to do his laundry. Groce isolated her, took away her phone, and deprived her of food.
Groce also dealt heroin to Amanda Ryan, who could not function without the drugs Groce supplied her. Ryan testified that she only agreed to prostitute for Groce so she could keep buying drugs from him. Preying on Ryan’s addiction, Groce threatened to cut off her heroin supply completely if she did not prostitute for him. He made Ryan do more calls when she misplaced his debit card in order to repay him.
Groce even manipulated his childhood friend, Melissa Copeland, into prostituting for him promising her that she could make $150 from one call. When Copeland returned from the call, Groce demanded that she give him the money that she earned. When she refused, Groce threw her down, forced her head to the pavement, reached in her bra, and took her money, leaving her on the street. Groce assured her that the police would not catch him. It turned out he was wrong.
Groce Convicted of Three Counts of Sex-Trafficking
Groce stood trial in the Western District of Wisconsin on July 11, 2016. After a four-day trial and a 10-hour deliberation, the jury found Groce guilty of eight counts, including three counts of sex-trafficking. The jury found that Groce acted “knowing[ly] or in reckless disregard of the fact, that means of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion … or any combination of such means [would] be used to cause [a] person to engage in a commercial sex act” in violation of §1591(a).1 Groce was sentenced to serve twenty-five years in prison followed by twenty-years of supervised release.
Groce Raises Evidentiary Issues on Appeal
On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, Groce challenged his sex trafficking convictions, arguing that the trial court erred by (1) excluding evidence of the victims’ alleged prostitution histories, (2) barring cross-examination of a victim on her alleged prostitution history after she testified she had no such history, (3) issuing an instruction lowering the mens rea requirement for sex trafficking, and (4) admitting prejudicial evidence of uncharged sex trafficking. The court, relying on precedent, affirmed Groce’s sex trafficking convictions.
Groce first argued that he could not have known that force, fraud, or coercion would be used to cause the victims to prostitute because he knew they prostituted before working for him. Further, he claimed the victims’ prostitution histories were relevant to his mens rea and the court erred by excluding this evidence under Rule 412, yet it allowed the government to elicit testimony from Stuhr that she never prostituted before meeting Groce. The court of this argument, citing United States v. Carson which held that “whether the victims had previously worked as prostitutes was irrelevant to the required mens rea for the crime.”2
Next, Groce argued that the court erred by admitting Melissa Copeland’s testimony related to the Mann Act3 charges due to the risk of unfair prejudice on the sex-trafficking charges. Groce claimed Copeland’s testimony—that he prostituted, battered, and robbed her—was unfairly prejudicial because it created a substantial risk the jury would rely on her testimony to decide his guilt on the sex-trafficking charges. For this reason, Groce argued, the court should have barred Copeland’s testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 403.4 Groce asserted that the effect of Copeland’s testimony—that someone would deceive a childhood friend into engaging in prostitution that she otherwise would never have done—was highly prejudicial because a central issue in the sex trafficking charges was whether that prostitution was voluntary or compelled.
The court disagreed, concluding that regardless of whether it applied a plain-error or an abuse-of-discretion standard of review, Groce lost. Under plain-error review, Groce was required to show a reasonable probability that he would have been acquitted of the sex trafficking charges absent Copeland’s testimony. In some circumstances, courts will reweigh evidence of other bad acts as a result of Rule 403 challenges, but that was not the case here. The court distinguished Copeland’s testimony as “not merely evidence of other bad acts,” but direct evidence of a charged crime, a violation of the Mann Act. Thus, the court found that it was admissible against the defendant even if the jury may rely on it to decide his sex trafficking charges. Moreover, the court found that the other sex-trafficking evidence in the case was overwhelming and concluded that even if the Copeland evidence had been excluded, Groce would not have been acquitted. Thus, the Seventh Circuit declined to disturb the trial court’s decision.
The Seventh Circuit’s holding in this case reaffirms the longstanding principle that “direct evidence of a crime is almost always admissible against a defendant.”5 Rule 403 is one of the primary constraints on the admission of evidence, as any evidence that is initially deemed admissible must still pass muster under 403’s balancing test to be admitted against a defendant.6 This case illustrates that even if direct evidence of one crime may sway the jury’s decision-making on the defendant’s guilt for a second crime, it can, and often is, still admitted. In this case, the evidence of sex-trafficking was overwhelming, such that Groce would have been convicted of sex-trafficking regardless of Copeland’s testimony. In closer cases, however, courts should be wary of admitting evidence that a defendant committed one crime that jurors could improperly rely upon to find him guilty of another.
- 1 United States v. Groce, 891 F.3d 260, 266 (7th Cir. 2018).
- 2 United States v. Carson, 870 F.3d 584, 593 (7th Cir. 2017).
- 3 Count 5 of the Superseding Indictment charged that the defendant knowingly transported and caused to be transported an individual in interstate commerce, from Wisconsin to Minnesota, with intent that the person engage in prostitution in violation of 18 USC §§ 2421, 2422.
- 4 Rule 403 states, “The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed. R. Evid. 403.
- 5 Groce, 891 F.3d 260, 270.
- 6 United States v. Gorman, 613 F.3d 711 (7th Cir. 2010).