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By Stephen J. Lee Forum News Service, Published April 14 2013

North Dakota human trafficking law to get first trial today

GRAND FORKS – Travis Levar Johnson and Joshua Harry are scheduled to appear in court here today in what would be the first trial under North Dakota’s 2009 human trafficking law.

If convicted, they would face a maximum sentence of life in prison, the stiffest penalty in state law, because the victim was a minor at the time of the alleged crime.

Had she been older, the maximum prison sentence would be 20 years.

One Grand Forks defense attorney called the life sentence “the hammer of Thor,” and it’s heavy inducement to seek a deal with prosecutors.

Indeed, Johnson’s and Harry’s co-defendant, Amanda Stewart, pleaded guilty in January after reaching a deal with prosecutors to testify against the others. Harry also reached a similar deal at that time, but later backed out.

Jury selection is slated for today, and the trial is scheduled to last the week.

However, last-minute moves by Harry’s attorney, Patrick Rosenquist, still could forestall a trial for him.

Rosenquist sought a hearing Friday afternoon, seeking a plea deal at the eleventh hour. But state District Judge Lawrence Jahnke said it wasn’t his call because it’s Judge Sonja Clapp’s case, and they could take it up with her today.

Johnson’s attorney, David Ogren, who was present at the hearing, appeared to have met with the prosecutor afterward. His client would likely be affected if Harry gets a plea deal because Harry would then testify against Johnson.

School counselor

Harry, 27, Johnson, 30, and Stewart, 22, were charged in August. Prosecutors say the three pimped a 17-year-old girl to a half-dozen men in Grand Forks in early 2011. Johnson is separately charged with corruption of a minor for allegedly coercing the girl to have sex with him.

Earlier this month, prosecutors revealed that the girl, now 19, told investigators she recognized one of the “johns” as her former high school counselor, Michael Delmore. She tried to back out of the encounter, but Stewart and Harry persuaded her to go through with it, prosecutors say.

Delmore, who retired last year as a counselor in Larimore, N.D., pleaded guilty in December to a misdemeanor for hiring the girl to engage in sexual acts. Prosecutors did not allege he knew she was 17.

He was sentenced to serve 15 days of community service, pay $750 in fees and fines, and write a letter of apology to the girl.

Delmore is one of several witnesses listed by prosecutors for this week’s trial. Also on the list is a University of North Dakota professor now on leave from his job, who investigators said paid the girl for sex. He was not charged in the case.

Two other cases

According to information from state and county prosecutors, the Grand Forks human trafficking case is only the third such case charged under the 2009 law and the first that might go to trial.

Last May, Cass County prosecutors charged Chad Lindley, 41, with human trafficking for allegedly pimping a woman in Fargo; she was not a minor and he did not risk a life sentence if convicted.

Lindley pleaded not guilty in September to the charge and three lesser felony sex and drug charges, including two involving minors. However, he’s scheduled for a plea change hearing today in court in Fargo, said Reid Brady, assistant state’s attorney for Cass County.

In February, Thomas Dietz of Bismarck was charged with human trafficking for allegedly traveling to Minot to have sex with a 14-year-old, who actually was a law enforcement officer posing as a girl online. But the case was dismissed this month, according to state court records.

The 2009 state law is written similarly to the federal law against human trafficking. It covers sex crimes that formerly could have been charged under other statutes, including ones against promoting prostitution, a felony with a maximum prison sentence of five years under North Dakota law.

Nationally, many states have adopted human trafficking laws to fight what experts call a growing trend of trafficking people for sex, especially minors, and often using the Internet. The North Dakota Catholic Conference worked with the office of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to draft the proposed legislation in 2008.

Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, was one of three sponsors of the bill in the state House in the 2009 session. Michael Delmore is her husband.

Lighter sentence

Under Stewart’s deal with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to criminal solicitation, a felony with a maximum prison sentence of five years. Prosecutors said they would recommend that she serve no more than a year in jail, perhaps on work release.

Stewart, who has no prior criminal record, is scheduled to be sentenced April 24.

Under the earlier deal that Harry rejected, he would have pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution, which also has a maximum prison sentence of five years. Prosecutors said they would recommend three years of prison and five years of probation. They allege in court filings that Johnson coerced Harry to not testify against him.

Last month, Rosenquist, Harry’s attorney, filed a brief to get the case dismissed on grounds the state’s human trafficking law is “over broad” and could outlaw many legal activities such as strip clubs and the buying and selling of pornography.

Judge Clapp denied his motion.