The young woman was trembling as she stood before the judge to plead for mercy. She was guilty of helping her boyfriend sexually exploit a teenager, she acknowledged, but she was also one of his victims.
“I honestly wish I had the courage and strength to stand up to David,” Madonna Say acknowledged during her October sentencing hearing in US District Court, sounding far younger than her 23 years.
“I was very weak, and couldn’t face my fears,” Say admitted, describing domestic abuse and coercion by her boyfriend, David Minasian, and her fear of what would happen if she tried to escape.
The admissions provide a snapshot of a conflict that judges and lawyers in the federal courts are confronting: As law enforcement officials increasingly target pimps in sex-trafficking and exploitation cases, how should they punish accomplices, who very often are victims themselves?
“This is a difficult decision, in a difficult case, but difficult decisions had to be made,” Assistant US Attorney Leah Foley told US District Judge William G. Young, making a case for a lenient sentence for Say.
But the mother of Say’s 15-year-old victim was not feeling merciful. “There’s not one fiber in me that makes me feel like you are any less of a predator,” the girl’s mother said, asking the judge to hold Say accountable.
Say stared straight ahead as the woman spoke. The courtroom was quiet.
Sex-trafficking offenders — the legal term for pimps — are being more frequently indicted in federal court where mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years or more can guarantee tougher punishments for convictions than in the state court system.
In the past two years alone, federal prosecutors in Boston have charged at least 15 defendants in six cases in federal court, compared with no indictments brought in the several previous years.
Last month, Michael Gemma, 31, of Boston was sentenced to 20 years in prison for transporting a 16-year-old across state lines for sex for a fee. And in September, Darrell Graham, 52, was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for sexually exploiting a woman when she was 19.
Law enforcement and women’s rights groups say the tougher penalties are an appropriate response to pimps who prey on vulnerable young women, sometimes children with histories of abuse or drug addiction who run away from home, looking for someone to care for them.
But at times, the law enforcement efforts that are meant to target the pimps also sweep up the women who assist them in their crimes, women who often are also victims themselves.
In October, federal authorities in Rhode Island charged Raechyl Spooner, 20, with assisting a sex trafficking ring. She had also been sold for sex.
Earlier this year, federal authorities in Boston charged a 26-year-old Jamaica Plain woman with assisting a sex-trafficking network; she faces a minimum of 10 years in prison, though her defense lawyer has argued that she was also abused by the pimp.
He had roped her into prostitution, and they had a child together, giving him more control over her, the lawyer argued.
Jessica Singer, program attorney for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said her agency works to raise awareness within the legal system that many women who work in sex-trafficking networks were lured into the trade as teenage victims themselves, and essentially became enslaved to their pimps.
“They are engaged in a codependent relationship; they’re in a situation where they’re vulnerable to trauma, being hit, being beaten, being coerced into doing these things,” she said.
“It’s an inability to feel like you can get away; it’s very, very real,” added Lisa Goldblatt Grace, director of My Life My Choice, a nonprofit in Boston that provides services to exploitation victims.
Grace did not comment on Say’s case specifically, but spoke generally about similar cases: “There can be a very challenging, brainwashed state. She is very much a victim, but the problem is she’s crossed the line and is now being seen as complicit in the crime.”
The case involving Say began in early 2013, when the 15-year-old runaway who Say was later accused of exploiting encountered a man on the streets of Chelsea. That man, identified in court as Minasian, offered her a place to sleep, but then plied her with alcohol and heroin, took her to Florida, and sold her for sex, according to an account she later gave her mother. The Globe is not naming the mother to protect the identity of her daughter.
Other young women made similar allegations against Minasian, then a 23-year-old from Malden. They said he would lure troubled young women with heroin, and then force them to sell themselves for the money to pay him back for the drugs.
When Minasian and the 15-year-old returned from Florida, Say — who was Minasian’s girlfriend, and seven months pregnant — aided with his sex crimes. Say took sexually explicit photos of the 15-year-old and posted them online as advertisements for “escort services.”
After Say and Minasian were arrested, Say quickly cooperated with authorities and agreed to testify against Minasian. She was initially charged with sexual trafficking, which carries a punishment of 10 years in prison, but after helping authorities build the case against Minasian, she faced a relatively minor charge that called for a sentence of no more than three years.
Foley, the prosecutor, told the judge at the recent court hearing that Say’s cooperation was crucial in the case against Minasian, whom she called a lifelong criminal. Acknowledging the weight of Say’s testimony, Minasian pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“It was critical to remove him from the streets, because of his predatory nature,” Foley told the judge.
When Young sentenced Minasian in October, he scolded him for victimizing a vulnerable teenager, and fostering her drug addiction.
But during the late-afternoon sentencing hearing in a South Boston courtroom, the victim’s mother stood before the court, accusing Say of the same crimes.
“How dare you do that to a little girl?” the mother asked Say, who was standing 10 feet away.
Say — whose mother died when she was 16 and whose father abandoned the family — stood in court with her lawyer, Bernard Grossberg. He described Say’s efforts to seek mental health treatment, to care for her young son, to get a job, and to rebound from what the lawyer called “battered woman’s syndrome.”
“I’m very ashamed to be here,” Say told the judge.
Young instructed Say to stand. Her sentence: time served, or roughly a month in prison, followed by a year of probation.
“You were part of something hideous,” the judge said. “You were a part of it. . . . Sadly as it is, because of how young you were, you were not strong enough to stand up to him.”