Otis D. Washington, charged along with four family members with trafficking girls and women for sex over the course of two years, represented himself at his trial Wednesday and declined to make any opening statement or cross-examine witnesses who testified.
“No, I’m good,” Washington said when a judge asked if he wanted to state his case to a jury of five men and nine women at opening statements.
Washington, 29, also chose to wear his jail-issued orange jumpsuit even though he was given the option and encouraged by the court to wear civilian clothing. He later told Ramsey County District Judge Rosanne Nathanson he was concerned that Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Karen Kugler brought attention to his status as an inmate by having a witness identify his jail-issued bracelet. Kugler rebutted by noting his choice in attire.
Washington is the first member of a St. Paul family to go to trial on accusations he trafficked vulnerable women and girls via the website backpage.com. After a six-month investigation, police discovered that more than 10 women and girls had been coerced or threatened into prostitution for two years by Washington and his family. His brother, the brother’s ex-girlfriend and two uncles also face various charges. Officials said the case was unusual because of the number of victims and the conspiracy involved. As part of their enterprise, the brothers used eight e-mail addresses, 30 phone numbers and more than 100 credit-card accounts in placing “hundreds of ads on adult-oriented websites such as backpage.com,” according to the complaint.
One woman reported being forced to turn 20 tricks on some nights.
Washington sat impassively through the first day of testimony with a court-appointed attorney next to him for consultation.
He refused to physically accept and review pictures of his home (his uncle’s house), pictures of backpage ads he allegedly posted, transcripts of angry and violent text messages he allegedly sent one of the victims and police pictures that Kugler proffered for his approval as evidence in the case, which is basic protocol.
Washington didn’t object to admitting the evidence, or to any questions by Kugler and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney David Pinto.
Before testimony began, Washington told Nathanson that he was caught off guard by the suddenness of having witnesses take the stand Wednesday afternoon. He also said that he couldn’t carry the “tons and tons” of trial paperwork to the courtroom.
Nathanson reminded him that he previously complained the trial was moving too slowly.
Kugler noted that the timing had been established Tuesday during jury selection.
“It’s crazy, man,” Washington said as he shook his head.
In her opening statements, Kugler said Washington was motivated by greed when he trafficked women and girls in 2012, including a vulnerable 15-year-old.
“Why did he do it?” Kugler asked. “Money, because sex trafficking is all about the money.”
A 20-year-old woman testified that she met Washington at a bus stop in downtown St. Paul when he walked by her several times and then spoke to her. The two planned their first date for the next day, Sunday church service, the woman testified.
The woman said they missed church so she spent the day at his uncle’s house, where Washington lived and authorities believe victims were brought and coached. The woman testified that she moved into the home two to three weeks after she met Washington, and considered them a couple.
She said she loved Washington.
“Did you believe he loved you?” Kugler asked.
“Yes, I did,” the woman said.
The woman testified that he physically and verbally abused her and pressured her to prostitute herself for him or find other victims for him. She said she saw him traffick one victim.
The woman said she resisted but eventually complied to make Washington happy.
He allegedly posted an ad titled, “The sweetest candy shop in town,” featuring nearly nude pictures of the woman.
“I felt like anything to make him love me at that time,” the woman said.
Testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.