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United States v. Coulter.

No. 21-6118. 1/18/2023. W.Okla. Judge Matheson. Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking—Child Sex Trafficking—Sufficiency of Evidence—Testimony—Improper Bolstering—Post-Trial Jury Interactions—Cumulative Error.

January 18, 2023

Coulter was a pimp who recruited underage girls to perform sex acts for him. He was charged with (1) conspiring with one of his longtime sex workers, Andrade, to commit child sex trafficking; (2) child sex trafficking with respect to Doe 1; and (3) child sex trafficking with respect to Doe 3. The jury initially returned a guilty verdict on counts 1 and 2 but reported it could not reach agreement on count 3. The judge polled the jury, and Juror Noland stated that the verdict did not reflect her opinion and she did not want to return to the deliberations. Coulter moved for a mistrial, and the district court denied the motion. The judge then spoke with Noland, who said she was willing to continue deliberating. The court reconvened the jury and gave it an instruction pursuant to Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492 (1896), encouraging it to continue deliberating. After deliberating, the jury again returned a guilty verdict on counts 1 and 2 but reported it could not reach agreement on count 3. All jurors confirmed their assent to the published verdict. Coulter later moved for a new trial under Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). The court denied the motion and sentenced him to 360 months in prison.

On appeal, Coulter argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the guilty verdict because Andrade and Doe 1 were not credible witnesses. It is the jury’s role to weigh the credibility of witnesses. Here, as to child sex trafficking, in addition to the testimony of Doe 1 and Andrade about the recruitment and preparation of Doe 1 for sex work, the government introduced Coulter’s phone records, which had explicit pictures of Doe 1, text messages soliciting clients for Doe 1, and instructions directing Doe 1 to take money from clients in exchange for sex. The government also presented a client who had a sexual encounter with Doe 1 and Andrade in exchange for money. This evidence was sufficient to establish that Coulter used means affecting interstate commerce to knowingly recruit Doe 1 to perform commercial sexual transactions and facilitated those transactions. Further, based on Andrade and Doe 1’s testimony, a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Coulter knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that Doe 1 was a minor. Therefore, sufficient evidence supported the sex trafficking conviction. Sufficient evidence also supported the conspiring to commit sex trafficking verdict because, in addition to the above evidence, Andrade testified that she worked together with Coulter to recruit Doe 1 and that they both facilitated her participation in commercial sex transactions.

Coulter also argued that the district court improperly admitted testimony about the deaths of two women associated with Coulter, Diaz and Biggers. Coulter waived the argument that the testimony violated the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. Coulter preserved only his hearsay argument concerning the overruling of his objection to the government’s redirect examination of Mullins about the manner of Diaz’s death. Mullins’s testimony about Diaz’s death was hearsay, but given the overwhelming evidence of Coulter’s guilt, any prejudice resulting from the testimony did not substantially influence the trial’s outcome. Further, Coulter failed to show that the government engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by eliciting this testimony and referencing Diaz’s death in its closing argument.

Coulter also contended that the guardian ad litem’s (GAL) mouthing “you’re doing a good job” to Doe 1 during her testimony constituted improper bolstering in violation of the Sixth Amendment rights to an impartial jury and a fair trial. Coulter objected to the GAL’s conduct when it occurred, and the district court sustained the objection and delivered a curative jury instruction. The Tenth Circuit has never held that a statement by a third party unaffiliated with the prosecution can constitute improper bolstering, and Coulter presented no argument or authority suggesting otherwise. Further, even if the bolstering doctrine applies to third parties, the GAL’s conduct here was not improper bolstering because her message was an attempt to reassure Doe 1 rather than a guarantee that Doe 1 was telling the truth.

Coulter further argued that the district court’s post-trial interactions with the jury were improper. He maintained that the district court abused its discretion by placing improper pressure on the jury to reach a unanimous verdict in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. However, the district court acted within its discretion when it polled the jury, and when the poll revealed a lack of unanimity, the court acted within its discretion by directing the jury to deliberate further rather than declaring a mistrial.

Lastly, Coulter contended that cumulative error deprived him of due process. However, Coulter failed to show at least two errors that were harmless, so the Tenth Circuit did not consider this argument further.

The judgment was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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