Girl, 15, walks off stand during testimony in sex trafficking case

A 15-year-old girl on Monday was willing to tell a federal jury that 63-year-old Charles Edward Smith plied her with crack cocaine, encouraged her to work as a prostitute and had sex with her.

But she balked when questions turned to her relationship with 44-year-old Michael Clark, another West Palm Beach man who prosecutors claim also forced her to work as a prostitute out of a house on Pine Street not far from Currie Park.

“I’m not trying to be rude but I’m not going to answer your questions,” the girl told defense attorney Caroline McCrae. “Just like you, I’m trying to protect someone. You’re obviously trying to protect your client. I’m trying to protect (Clark). … I protect people I care about.”

When McCrae continued to quiz the girl about her relationship with Clark, the teen got up from her chair in the witness stand and walked out of the courtroom.

“She might be emotionally tapped out,” said attorney Alexandra Lohman, who was appointed to represent the girl, identified only as Minor A. Minutes later, Lohman returned to tell U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks that the girl would not be returning to testify Monday and perhaps not before the trial ends this week.

The girl, identified in court papers only as Minor A, is the key witness against Smith, who faces a possible life sentence if convicted of two charges of sex trafficking of minors and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Whether the teen knew it or not is unclear, but Clark on June 20 pleaded guilty to sex trafficking charges in connection with the March raid on the Pine Street house. He also faces life imprisonment when he is sentenced on Aug. 27.

McCrae sought unsuccessfully to convince Middlebrooks that the girl’s refusal to answer questions and her abrupt departure from the courtroom compromised Smith’s constitutional rights to confront witnesses and to a fair trial. The girl’s relationship with Clark is key to the defense theory that she and Clark agreed to incriminate Smith, who they called Suncoast, McCrae said.

Middlebrooks denied her request for a mistrial and a separate one to ask the jury to ignore the girl’s testimony.

Attorney Tama Kudman, who is not involved in the case, said if the girl doesn’t return to the witness stand and Smith is convicted, he has good grounds for an appeal. “The right to cross-examine witnesses, as you know, is a fundamental right,” she said.

But, Kudman said, the young girl’s devotion to Clark — a man who McCrae described as her “pimp” — is sadly not surprising.

“Very often we do see in sex trafficking cases a personal, parental or leadership relationship develop,” she said. “Young people don’t have family relationships intact so they have no one to run to.” The abuser becomes their surrogate family.

The girl’s testimony underscored Kudman’s point. The girl’s mother was declared unfit and she was sent to live with her grandmother. Eventually, her grandmother said she couldn’t handle her and turned her over to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

State group homes couldn’t handle her either. She ran away from many, searching for her mother, she said.

McCrae suggested the girl sought refuge at the Pine Street house to reconnect with her mother. While the utilities at the house were in her mother’s name, the girl insisted her mother didn’t live there.

“It’s none of your guys’ business,” she said when McCrae pressed her.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lothrop Morris said the girl has done well in school since returning to state custody after West Palm Beach policeraided the Pine Street house. She testified that she earned all As and one B on a recent report card and plans to go to college. Morris suggested psychological treatment she is getting has helped as well.

“You’re feeling better?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” she responded.

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