At 14, she was a victim of sex trafficking. Should that excuse her murder conviction?

She was 12 when a teenager recruiting for a pimp found her at a party.

The recruiter — a 17-year-old girl — saw an opportunity in the vulnerable preteen. The older teenager befriended the girl by taking her shopping and getting her high, according to court testimony and interviews with an advocate for her family.

In two years, she was under the control of the pimp.

By 14, the girl was stripping in Fort Worth clubs, according to court testimony. She also went missing for two weeks after the teenager picked her up from a basketball game, according to sources and social media posts. A year later, her family reported to police that she was being sexually trafficked.

Thirteen days after that report was made, and a day after her 16th birthday, the girl was involved in a Mansfield home invasion that left a 21-year-old father dead.

Even though she didn’t pull the trigger, the teen was convicted of capital murder, accused of plotting the 2016 robbery with six others — including rapper Tay-K 47 — at her boyfriend’s house.

Prosecutors argued that being a victim of sex trafficking didn’t excuse her involvement.

But her new defense attorney and advocates for sex trafficking victims say there’s more to the story — an impressionable girl groomed and forced into sex trafficking used as a pawn in a robbery gone wrong who was dealt a bad hand. Calling the case an injustice from the beginning, experts also pointed fingers at the girl’s first defense attorney, who turned down a plea deal that would have given her probation.

Instead, she faces 20 years in prison.

A vulnerable girl

In 2012, the girl was the perfect target for someone looking to take advantage of a young person. (The Star-Telegram is not naming her because she was a minor when the crime was committed).

Traffickers and recruiters feed off children who have holes in their lives — they’re runaways, have absent parents, or are already caught up in the criminal system — and they fill those holes by offering love and gifts, later at a cost, experts told the Star-Telegram.

“Many victims are still living at home and they’re still maintaining normal lives for at least part of the day,” said Mellissa Withers, an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California’s Online Master of Public Health program.

“They still fall into this trap and are manipulated in this very insidious, long process,” she said.

As the girl spent more time with the recruiter, she was beaten, choked, burned with cigarettes and tattooed to mark her pimp’s ownership, according to court testimony and an advocate who has been working with her family. Fort Worth police denied a record request for the trafficking complaint because she was a minor involved in a sex crime.

Participating in her own victimization

On the night of Ethan Walker’s slaying, three young women — including the girl and the teen who recruited her, according to testimony — went to the home of Zachary Beloate.

The girl was supposed to distract Beloate, 19, her boyfriend by having sex with him while the others stole drugs and cash, according to testimony.

Once inside, the suspects didn’t find anything, but demanded cellphones.

Walker was sitting on the floor when he was shot and killed by Latharian Merritt, according to testimony in the girl’s trial. Beloate was shot in the shoulder.

State prosecutors have argued that the girl was the mastermind behind the robbery.

Megan Holt, who agreed to a 20-year sentence in exchange for her testimony, told the judge during rapper Taymor McIntyre’s trial on Wednesday that the young girl proposed to her two female accomplices that they try to rob Beloate. She said the girl shared the floor plan of the house and told the group the drugs would be hidden under a couch.

The gir’s new defense attorney, Scott Brown of Fort Worth, maintains his client didn’t plan the hit.

Many children who are trafficked will do anything they can to please their trafficker, such as potentially going along with a crime or helping plan it, said Celia Williamson, executive director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo.

It’s called “trauma bond.

“A child will participate in their own victimization,” she said. “They will lie to make their trafficker happy. … Kids become very loyal to their trafficker and even have positive feelings about their trafficker and when you experience trauma bond, the body has a unique way of surviving.”

Despite her human trafficking claims, the girl was found guilty of three delinquent conduct charges: capital murder and two aggravated robbery charges.

A claim of willingness

State prosecutors argued at her 2018 trial and in a hearing earlier this month to transfer the girl to adult court that she willingly went along with the crime.

Despite acknowledging that he believed she was a sex trafficking victim, Judge Alex Kim said the same.

“I believe you went more or less willing along with the opportunity that the traffickers provided for you,” he told the girl, now 18, at the hearing on July 9. “They provided a certain sense of excitement or lifestyle you weren’t entirely opposed to.”

Prosecutor Riley Shaw argued during the girl’s transfer hearing that police spent a year investigating her claim and no evidence was found. But he never said he didn’t believe the girl’s claim.

Danielle Dudai, a former Florida prosecutor and investigator of sex trafficking, said that a lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that no sex trafficking occurred. Sometimes, she said, investigators are unable to dig up enough evidence for probable cause.

Should we believe victims who say they’ve been trafficked?

“Always,” said Vanessa Bouche, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University and a member of the board of directors for Arcadia North Texas and Traffick911. “I think we need to err on the side of caution, so if someone says they’re being trafficked, you need to take that seriously.”

Experts said it’s a misconception that children willingly allow themselves to be trafficked.

“The decision-making part of the brain isn’t fully developed until the early 20s and someone who is 14, 15, 16 can be easily manipulated by a trafficker,” Williamson said. “We understand nationally that manipulation occurs when a trafficker exploits a child.”

In Texas, anyone under 18 who is sold for sex is automatically considered a sex trafficking victim.

Texas Family Code allows deferred adjudication for children who are sex trafficking victims, meaning that if they committed a crime while being trafficked, the juvenile court can delay the case until the child turns 18. In the meantime, a judge can require that the child participate in a program. And after successful completion, the court can dismiss the case with prejudice.

That was partially done in this case.

“She had to do that programming in juvenile detention,” Bouche said. “Ideally it wouldn’t take place there but rather in a long-term restorative home. But we have so few of those homes in Texas.”

Recommendation for parole

During her transfer hearing, a handful of counselors and program directors from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department testified that the girl had no disciplinary actions against her, that she successfully completed sex trafficking victims programming and was a model citizen while in custody. All of them recommended that the girl be paroled for the remainder of her sentence because of the progress she made.

A widely-circulated Facebook post from an anti-trafficking advocate criticized the judge’s decision not to parole the girl and criticized his remarks that she was willing.

While explaining his decision, Kim said he did not believe the girl was at risk of committing another crime if she were to be paroled.

Kim declined to comment about the Facebook post, but said he had to consider a lot of things when making his decision, like the seriousness of the offense.

“A jury found her guilty of capital murder and the previous judge sentenced her to 20 years and that’s the fact of it,” he said.

But Bouche said the justice system failed the girl from the beginning.

“I would say that, in my opinion, in the original trial, her defense attorney really did her no favors and was somewhat inept,” she said. “He should have taken a completely different route with her defense and he should have hammered home the sex trafficking aspect of this and the extent of the coercion. I think this route would have been more of an option and more explored but the way he argued the case didn’t give her a chance.”

A plea deal offering the girl 10 years of probation was declined, according to multiple sources.

Asked about the trial, the details of the plea deal and the decisions he made representing the girl, court-appointed attorney Frank Adler declined to comment, citing her pending appeal.

Arguments have been made that the girl could have left her traffickers.

“It’s much more complicated than that,” Bouche said. “There’s this whole process of them not self-identifying as victims because they’ll start believing that the trafficker does have their best interest in mind. Traffickers are master manipulators and because of that, there’s a long process of psychological coercion and grooming.”

Bouche said she feels the case against the girl highlights the problems within the criminal justice system as it relates to children.

“We really ought to be seeking ways of restorative justice,” she said, adding that it’s a waste of money to keep the girl — who was deemed a low risk for committing future crimes — in jail. “This isn’t about emotion. This is the law, these are facts and this case was handled incorrectly.”

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.