Trending Cases

Victims’ Sexual Histories Have No Place in the Courtroom
United States v. Carson, 870 F.3d 584 (7th Cir. 2017)


Imagine that you are a homeless woman who has been addicted to crack since the age of 12.1 You have no money, no job, no food, and you are violently ill from withdrawal. You feel as though you have hit rock bottom, and you do not have any hope that your situation will improve. Then, a woman from a crack house introduces you to a man who promises that he will give you shelter, income, and drugs if you work for him as a prostitute. He tells you that you will be able to decide your work schedule and keep all of the money you make. Desperate to escape your current situation—to finally find relief from the debilitating symptoms of withdrawal—you accept his offer.

But it turns out that this man’s offer is too good to be true. When you meet the man at the hotel, he takes your cell phone, your clothes, and your shoes so you cannot escape. He forces you to have sex five times a day with “dates” that he arranges. He makes you hand over all the money you earn. He rapes you and beats you to force you into submission. He says that if you try to run away, he will kill your children and grandmother. Sadly, this scenario was a reality for Veronica Del Valle and several other victims in McKenzie Carson’s sex trafficking ring.

Control Through Violence and Intimidation

From 2009 to 2012, McKenzie Carson orchestrated a sex trafficking ring throughout Illinois. He preyed on vulnerable women—mainly poor teenagers and homeless drug addicts—and coerced them to have sex with four to five different customers a day. For Carson, threats, intimidation, and violence were essential to instill fear in his victims and force them to comply with his will. On at least one occasion, Carson raped one victim while forcing another woman and her child to watch. On another occasion, Carson whipped a woman with his size 40 belt, leaving her back and buttocks “red and puffy with slash marks.”2 When another victim told Carson she was too tired to work, he punched her in the eye, permanently breaking one of her blood vessels.

Guilty of Sex Trafficking: Sentenced to 47 Years

Carson’s operation came to a halt in 2012 when he was arrested and charged with violating the federal sex trafficking statute, which makes it illegal to exploit another person for commercial sexual purposes through force, fraud, or coercion. In 2013, a federal jury found Carson guilty at trial, and he was sentenced to 47 years behind bars.

“Prior Consent” Defense

Carson appealed his sentence to the Seventh Circuit, arguing that the District Court erred in excluding evidence of the victims’ prior involvement in prostitution.3 Such evidence, Carson argued, “had a direct bearing on his defense, that he subjectively believed that the women were not coerced into engaging in commercial sex acts, but rather did so willingly.”4 He claimed that excluding this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment rights because it was needed to support his defense that he did not have the requisite state of mind to commit the crime. Essentially, Carson intended to assert that because his victims had voluntarily engaged in commercial sex in the past, they were not coerced into doing so by him.

Court Protects Victims from Sexual Stereotypes

The Seventh Circuit disagreed with Carson, holding that the District Court properly excluded that evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 412. This rule, commonly referred to as the “rape shield law,” says that in a case involving alleged sexual misconduct, the court cannot admit evidence of a victim’s prior sexual history or predispositions.5 The rule was enacted to prevent the invasion of victim’s privacy, eliminate the use of defenses based on sexual stereotypes, and encourage victims to participate in legal proceedings against their assailant.6 An exception to Rule 412 exists where exclusion of the evidence would violate the defendant’s constitutional rights. This exception was the basis on which Carson appealed.

In affirming the District Court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit said that evidence of the victims’ past participation in prostitution fit squarely within the scope of prohibited evidence. “Whether the victims had previously worked as prostitutes was irrelevant to the required mens rea for the crime” because “voluntary prostitution is a completely separate act from commercial sex transactions that occur as the result of force or coercion….”7 Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit held that Carson could not credibly argue that he believed his victims voluntarily worked for him given the extensive evidence of him beating, raping, isolating, and threatening the victims to engage in commercial sex.

Victim-Centered Consensus

The Seventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with other circuit courts across the country. In United States v. Gemma, a sex trafficking case where the defendant made a similar mens rea argument as Carson, the First Circuit held that evidence of prior prostitution was “either entirely irrelevant or of such slight probative value in comparison to its prejudicial effect that a decision to exclude it would not violate [the defendant’s] constitutional rights.”8 Similarly, the Fifth Circuit held that “evidence of the victim’s pre- and post-indictment acts of prostitution” is irrelevant as to whether the defendants caused the victim to engage in a commercial sex act in the instant case.9 This now appears to be a settled issue of law, as the Second,10 Third,11 Sixth,12 Eighth,13 Ninth,14 and Eleventh15 Circuits have all reached the same conclusion. There is not currently any case law to the contrary.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit upheld Carson’s sentence, signifying that human trafficking victims’ sexual histories have no place in the courtroom.

  • 1 United States v. Carson, 870 F.3d 584 (7th Cir. 2017).
  • 2 Carson, 2017 WL 3709137, at *3.
  • 3 Id. at *4.
  • 4 Id
  • 5 Fed. R. Evid. 412.
  • 6 Fed. R. Evid. 412 advisory committee’s note.
  • 7 Carson, 2017 WL 3709137, at *5.
  • 8 United States v. Gcitema, 818 F.3d 23, 34 (1st Cir. 2016).
  • 9 United States v. Lockhart, 844 F.3d 501, 510 (5th Cir. 2016).
  • 10 United States v. Rivera, 799 F.3d 180 (2d Cir. 2015).
  • 11 United States v. Williams, 666 Fed Appx 186 (3rd Cir. 2016).
  • 12 United States v. Mack, 808 F3d 1074 (6th Cir. 2015).
  • 13 United States v. Roy, 781 F3d 416 (8th Cir. 2015).
  • 14 United States v. Valenzuela, 495 Fed Appx 817 (9th Cir. 2012).
  • 15 United States v. Chin, 606 Fed Appx 538 (11th Cir. 2015).

About the author

Cassondra (Cj) Murphy

Cassondra (Cj) Murphy

Cassondra (Cj) is a University of Virginia School of Law Robert F. Kennedy Public Service Fellow with the Human Trafficking Institute. She is a 2018 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where she served as the Assistant Managing Editor of the Virginia Law Review and a fellow in the Law and Public Service Program. After the completion of her fellowship with the Human Trafficking Institute, Cj will serve as a law clerk for the Hon. Charles P. Kocoras on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.