Community guest post by Amanda B.
In April, 2015, a trial was held in San Marcos, Texas. The defendant was indicted on the charges of sex trafficking of a minor and three different counts of sexual assault.* Both he and the girl he violated were from Kyle, a community in the county just south of Austin. I was a juror on that three-week-long trial.
I’d like to tell you the story of this case. I tell you not only as a neighbor, but as a potential juror yourself. The Constitution provides us many liberties, such as trial by jury, but it also requires great responsibility from us. As potential jurors, we each have the responsibility to become informed of the realities existing in our own communities.
Miss E was a local girl who started out high school with good grades in hard subjects, despite her challenging home life. Previous to the trial, I had read several books on the psychology of sexual exploitation, so it was immediately apparent to me that Miss E had been sexually abused, and that suspicion was validated later in the trial. In my opinion, this was a child who found it hard to stick around the house at night with the people who should have been protecting her.
From my reading, I knew that, as a result of early sexual abuse, children typically come to believe that they are unworthy of a normal, loving relationship. They are particularly open to an abusive relationship in exchange for any small amount of attention and validation. They would often rather be abused by an outsider who deceives them into thinking they are “loved,” than to have no choice in being abused inside a family setting. These young people make unwise, self-destructive and self-medicating choices, then do not know how to get back out of the tangled web. Sexual violence is not abnormal to them, but becomes a required part of their survival. These behaviors often emerge as early as 12, long before these children have the life-experience and maturity to understand the long-term consequences of their choices.
Indeed, at the age of 12, Miss E, who looked much older than her real age, started “Friending” older men on Facebook. These men took advantage of her in exchange for helping her get out of the house for awhile. Mr. M was one of those men. At the time, she was 15, and he was 32. He picked her up from her house, and helped her find a small, run-down trailer to stay in. He visited her often, and introduced her to cocaine and meth. Miss E stated that she quickly became addicted to the drugs and accepted that she was exchanging unpleasant sexual favors for her next “high.” DNA evidence confirmed that other men were also involved in some of these sexual acts.
Miss E had opportunities to leave, and to contact her mother, but she chose not to. Eventually, Miss E became very sick, and called 911 when Mr. M wasn't around. She spent well over a month in Dell Children's hospital with life-threatening illnesses, and then went on to live in a series of residential facilities. She did not accuse Mr. M as a trafficker until a year and a half later, after extensive rehabilitation.
The number one thing I concluded while going through this trial is that it isn't surprising that there are so few arrests and convictions in the field of sex trafficking. Even in this trial, the defendant was found guilty of a lesser charge.* Here are some of the reasons, and what we can do about them:
- It is difficult for the victims to testify. It is the Defense’s job to make them look bad. It’s embarrassing to be on the stand for days, grilled over and over about every sexual act in very graphic terms, questioned about every little thing you might have done wrong yourself, scrutinized for entries caregivers recorded in your medical records about your mental state and thoughts you have written in your personal journals during recovery. It is stressful to have all these items twisted and misstated to try to make you look like a mentally-ill liar. It is challenging to sit and look at your abuser, and struggle with internal questions about any misplaced love that you might have felt for them. It is a strain to sort through your memories, clouded by drugs and self-protecting denial, to remember what really happened. These victims are often now struggling with multiple addictions in their lives, and I'm sure the stress of trials (there will be a separate trial for each perpetrator involved) heightens their fight against the strong desire to self-medicate.
In this trial it seemed more like Miss E was on trial than the actual defendant, since she was on the stand for 2 ½ days, and Mr. M didn't ever say a single word since since a defendant is not required to testify at their own trial. I can see quite graphically now why, for many victims of sexual exploitation, their recovery is more hampered by the process of trial than it is helped by bringing their abuser to justice. The process cannot be avoided if we are to incarcerate the perpetrators, so these victims need our society's empathy and support, not our judgement, which requires a cultural shift.
- It is hard for the Prosecution to present evidence on how the trafficker operated over all the objections by the Defense. The victim is not allowed to just tell their story. They can only answer direct questions by the Prosecution and Defense, and there are many laws of testimony that must be followed, particularly when the victim is a minor. Therefore, the typical modus operandi of sex traffickers should be very well publicized so that it is more recognizable. Criminals as young as 16 are now all-too-well-educated in ways to entice potential victims into risky relationships, to carefully and methodically earn their trust, to cultivate an emotional attachment to a false sense of “love” and acceptance through flattery, and to brainwash them into rebellion against their “uncaring” families. To testify about these things involves conjecture, which is not allowed.
Next, the exploiters lure their victims away from their homes, entrap them, sexually abuse them, emotionally bully them, introduce or force them into drug addiction, verbally or physically beat them at the least sign of resistance, and threaten to kill their loved ones if they don't appear to be completely willing to do all that the pimp commands. Again, these are all hard items to present evidence for, so a jury will probably not learn the exact details of the relationship. They may just see an accuser who appears to be a “bad” person and a “willing” co-conspirator to the crime.
- The strong tie between childhood sexual abuse and later sexual exploitation may not be widely understood by juries. General education of the public about the psychology of child abuse victims will be critical to the fight. You cannot educate yourself after you are seated on a jury. You can only draw on the facts of the case, and your own education and common sense. You cannot legally educate other members of the jury. You can only point to the evidence presented in the trial. It is easy to judge victims for their rebellion against family, their use of drugs and their forming of unhealthy relationships. It is hard to understand the desperation and the lack of self-worth that they feel, and how vulnerable these thoughts make them to extreme manipulation. It is hard to understand why they didn't just run away from a trafficker if they had the opportunity, and why it takes them a long time to identify their abusers, or how they could possibly think these people were in love with them. But as time goes on, it is becoming more and more clear that these are all “standard” behaviors for the childhood victims of incest and sexual abuse, which are well-hidden crimes in our society.
- The laws against sex trafficking are new, and not well tested. They can be quite confusing to juries, and will be more effective if they can be re-written in clearer language. This is a process that will take trial-and-error and time in each state. Sex trafficking has a growing number of faces, and there need to be more laws to deal with various forms of sexual exploitation, rather than a few very broad laws that end up nearly meaningless. As sex trafficking is becoming more publicized, and the public develops a certain image of what it entails, such as kidnapping, beatings and multiple victims, the use of that term in a charge may no longer seem to fit the crime, particularly when the victim was initially willing to start a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, as is often the case.
Prosecuting sex trafficking crimes is extremely difficult. Witnesses to sex trafficking are hard to obtain – because almost anyone who witnessed the operation is criminally involved. It is very hard to corroborate the story told by a victim who was drugged at the time, as are many sex trafficking victims. Timely and definitive DNA evidence is hard to obtain. Also, trials of this kind are very expensive, with a lot of money spent on public defenders and expert witnesses. Prosecutors have limited budgets, and don't want to take cases to trial unless they have high odds of winning. The police are not highly motivated to pursue crimes that cannot be prosecuted.
We, as a community, must work on methods that foil the tactics of the sex traffickers before they exploit their victims. While important stakeholders, it is clear that we cannot rely solely on law enforcement and the judicial system to solve this problem for us. Please read all you can on the subject, and spread the word. Then seek ways to volunteer to help stop this awful crime that creates havoc in victims' lives.
*The jury did NOT find the defendant guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the Sex Trafficking charge. That means this man is innocent of sex trafficking before the law, and it is important in our society that we uphold this key feature of our legal system. The jury DID, however, find him guilty of Harboring a Runaway Minor, and of one of the Sexual Assault charges. The sentence for the former charge was covered by his time already served; the sentence for the latter charge was 20 years. I have left out the details of this case that go beyond the charges that received actual convictions.
Also, let me assert that the process that goes on in a Jury Room is a sacred event under our legal system. Each juror must deal with the consequences of how their decision will affect the life of another person. What is said in that room is private and confidential. My comments here are not an indictment of the thought process of any other jurors, or of the case made by the State prosecutors or the Defense attorneys, but my own suggestions of what can help Americans fight sexual exploitation crimes.
Amanda B. is a mom, a wife, a researcher, and a volunteer in support of sex trafficking victims. In her spare time, she enjoys photographing Texas wildflowers.