Human trafficking victims, including child sex trafficking victims, often don’t self-identify.
If they don’t self-identify, how are law enforcement, judges, juries, and community members going to know they need help? Why wouldn’t someone being trafficked ask for help?
Traffickers groom their victims and are master psychological manipulators making this crime very difficult for anyone to identify. For some expert advice on how law enforcement can identify trafficking victims and how they help educate judges and jurors on trafficking, Darkness to Light’s Judicial and Legal Content Specialist Judge Kristi Harrington (Ret.) interviewed Detective Charlie Benton with the North Charleston Police Department. Detective Benton founded the department’s Human Trafficking Unit.
Judge Kristi Harrington (Ret.) (KH): In your experience, what is one of your responsibilities when taking a human trafficking case to trial?
Detective Benton (DB): One of the biggest responsibilities of the case agent and prosecutor is adequately educating the jury and the judge on what human trafficking really is, versus the images they are used to seeing on TV and in movies.
KH: How can the lead investigator dispel the images the “average juror” may have seen in fictionalized versions of trafficking?
DB: It is vitally important to cover the legal definition of human trafficking and then, very clearly, walk the jury and judge through the myriad ways in which the trafficker exemplified that definition.
A good prosecution will contain multiple advertisements for commercial sex, jail calls and jail video calls, text messages, GPS records, emails, and social media content. All of these pieces of evidence work together to demonstrate the deplorable conditions, rules, and expectations forced by the traffickers onto the victims in that particular case, and most of these examples will be in the words of the traffickers themselves.
KH: Is an investigator or prosecutor usually able to locate evidence that is admissible in court?
DB: If the investigator and prosecutor are doing their job thoroughly, yes. Human trafficking cases are very protracted and complex. These cases typically start with victim’s statement being nearly 100% of the evidence in the case. If we are doing our job correctly, our investigation will result in significant amounts of corroborating evidence, reducing the burden on the victim’s testimony as the only evidence in the case. Our objective evidence demonstrates the truthfulness of the victim’s statements and builds the victim’s credibility with the jury and the judge.
For example: the victim discloses to the investigator that they were taken by the trafficker from Hotel A in City A to Hotel B in City B in a red four-door rental car, rented by the trafficker’s aunt. The investigator is then able to locate the rental agreement for a red four-door car, rented by the trafficker’s aunt. The GPS from the rental car shows it traveling from City A to City B during the time period specified by the victim. Hotel receipts are acquired showing a name associated with the case (trafficker, victim, alias used by trafficker, etc.) renting the room in both cities during the dates specified by the victim. Further, the escort ads associated with the trafficker’s phone were placed in both cities during the same dates as the aforementioned evidence. Additionally, social media postings during those dates show the victim and/or trafficker posing inside/outside a hotel room with décor consistent with the décor of Hotel A and/or Hotel B. All of these items establish the victim’s credibility, so when they deliver testimony about the abuse and control to which they were subjected the jury and judge know the victim is a credible witness.
KH: What have you found to be a difficult component for the jury to comprehend in these cases?
DB: Inevitably, there will be some “happy pictures” in the discovery from social media accounts. These pictures will show the victims smiling, laughing, and maybe even showing affection for their trafficker.
We should think of everything we have learned about the American slave trade and the Nazi Holocaust, two of the most horrific events in human history. If we were to somehow gain the ability to travel back in time and observe American slaves and Jewish prisoners, we would likely see some of them smiling or laughing at some point. It is human nature for a person to try and find joy or happiness, even in the most horrendous circumstances. If we were able to travel back in time and observed American slaves or Jewish prisoners smiling, would that make them any less a slave or a prisoner? Absolutely not.
KH: Victims of trafficking often appear to be able to move freely about the area, sometimes without the trafficker present. How do you explain this perception of “freedom” to the jury?
DB: Traffickers are master psychological manipulators. The confinement experienced by victims is very rarely in the form of being physically restrained. Traffickers spend a significant amount of time grooming their victims, which includes learning about the people in the victim’s life that are considered most important (younger sibling, grandmother, aunt, etc.). The grooming process serves multiple purposes. Through this process victims begin to feel a bond forming with their trafficker. The benefit to the trafficker is that he knows that after multiple periods of physical and/or psychological abuse, the victim will cease to care about themselves. When this occurs, the trafficker will switch the target of his threats to a person about whom the victim cares the most.
There is also a hierarchy that exists among victims. The top position in this hierarchy is known, ironically, as the “bottom girl”. The bottom girl typically has been with the trafficker longer than the other girls and has begun to take on some of the responsibilities of the trafficker, such as placing ads and training the new girls on both the rules of the trafficker and the consequences for breaking those rules. The bottom girl will often report rule violations to the trafficker or may even enact punishment on the spot for violations. Because the bottom girl has demonstrated her loyalty to the trafficker, the trafficker may further use her by sending her and a newer victim out to run any necessary errands such as restocking their supply of condoms and baby wipes, buying lingerie for a new victim, or buying food. To the average person, it would appear as if two girls were out shopping together, free to come and go as they please. To the new victim, she is aware that the bottom girl is watching her every move, waiting to report an infraction to the trafficker or punish her herself right then and there.
Traffickers convince the victim that there is no place the victim can go that the trafficker will not be able to find them. Traffickers are also able to convince their victims that going somewhere else is useless because no one else wants them or cares for them the way the trafficker does. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome that often develops between the victim and the trafficker, so much so that it is not uncommon for a victim to express a desire to testify on behalf of their trafficker at trial.
This is part one of a two-part blog series. The next series will discuss the importance of trauma-informed victimology.
Detective Charlie Benton, Jr. works as a detective with the North Charleston Police Department and founded the department’s Human Trafficking Unit. He is also assigned as a task force officer with the ATF’s violent crimes task force. In 2017 he earned the United States Attorney’s Award for his work in bringing down a 10-defendant human trafficking conspiracy that operated in 11 states between 2005 and 2016 and involved over 100 victims. Prior to founding the Human Trafficking Unit in 2015, he worked as a special victims detective, a property crimes detective, and a patrol officer. Charlie earned a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Charleston Southern University where he became inducted into Alpha Phi Sigma, a national criminal justice honor society. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Experimental Psychology from the University of South Carolina. Charlie taught as an adjunct professor in criminal justice at Shorter University. He presently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Doors to Freedom, a non-profit that provides comprehensive services to victims of human trafficking. Charlie also served as the law enforcement representative on the Lowcountry Children Center’s Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Workgroup, whose purpose was establishing a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying victims and perpetrators of human trafficking and coordinating victim services while preserving the integrity of the criminal investigation.
Hon. Kristi Harrington (Ret.) is the Judicial and Legal Content Specialist with Darkness to Light. She retired from the South Carolina Circuit Court bench after serving two terms. Judge Harrington’s career has been focused on the issues facing women and children in the justice system, having served on the Children’s Justice Task Force and the Governor’s Task Force for Violence Against Women. Judge Harrington has also taught locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. She is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Charleston School of Law where she teaches a variety of classes. She is currently serving on the Faculty Council of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, where she is also an adjunct professor. In 2016, Judge Harrington traveled to India as a Fulbright Scholar Specialist to Symbiosis Law College and was honored to present to Indian judges at the Maharashtra Judicial Academy. During her time in India, Judge Harrington lectured at five law schools and was the keynote speaker at an International Victims Rights Conference in Goa.
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