In February 2018, a year-old girl was sentenced to 20 years for burglary and capital murder in the killing of Ethan Walker. Since that conviction, she has been in the custody of juvenile justice.
The case re-emerged recently when Judge Alex Kim upheld the 20-year sentence and transferred the girl to adult prison. As he did, he made egregious statements that smack of victim blaming and rape myth.
During the girl’s trial, it was alleged that she was a sex trafficking victim. While in juvenile detention, she participated in sex trafficking survivor support groups. And in the transfer hearing last week, Kim said: “This court is convinced that you are in fact a victim of human trafficking, of sex trafficking. I’m not disputing that.”
This case, known widely for the prosecution of rapper Taymor McIntyre, or Tay-K 47, is tragic for many reasons, beginning with the fact that Ethan Walker lost his life. But it also embodies all of the misperceptions and myths about sex trafficking that so many of us have been working to dismantle for so long, and that’s a tragedy, too.
Let’s start with the law. The Texas Family Code allows for deferred adjudication for minor sex trafficking victims. That means that if they committed a crime while being trafficked, a juvenile court can defer adjudication until the child turns 18 and have the child participate in a program, after which the court can dismiss the case with prejudice.
This provision could have been brought to bear in the girl’s case, but it was not, despite the fact that she was described by a juvenile probation officer as one of the “top 10” most well-behaved girls in custody. (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is not using the girl’s name because she was a juvenile when the crime was committed.)
Perhaps the reason is that there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of sex trafficking victimization. Psychological coercion of sex trafficking victims is so intense that it is common for victims not to identify as such, to develop trauma bonds with their traffickers, and to develop dissociative disorders that enable them to do things they would not ordinarily view as acceptable.
Under conditions of persistent threats and master manipulation, victims begin to identify with their traffickers. It is a type of Stockholm syndrome.
But the broader implication of misunderstanding sex trafficking victimization is that victim blaming and rape myth ideologies are perpetuated even among elected officials. Consider Kim, who told the girl in court: “I believe you went more or less willing along with the opportunity that the traffickers provided for you. They provided a certain sense of excitement or lifestyle that you weren’t entirely opposed to.”
Tarrant County has come a long way in understanding sex trafficking with the creation of the 5-Stones Task Force, but there is clearly a lot more educating to do among justice officials.
While the rest of the country celebrated the clemency granted to a Tennessee woman who killed a man when she was being trafficked at age 16, Tarrant County judges and prosecutors are moving backwards by criminalizing victims.
And while the country cheers as Jeffrey Epstein is prosecuted for running a sex trafficking ring involving minors, the real perpetrators in the local case — the traffickers — are still at large.
Tarrant County, we’re better than this.