A Columbia man pleaded guilty to human trafficking minors on Tuesday, avoiding a trial that would have tested the boundaries of the state’s human trafficking law and, potentially, set a historic precedent.
Circuit Judge DeAndrea Benjamin accepted a plea deal for Trevonta Matthews, 24, sentencing him to 17 years in prison. A permanent restraining order was requested for Matthews’ victims, and he will be placed on the sex offender registry once he is released.
Matthews was one of six Columbia residents arrested in a human trafficking investigation by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in January. Officials said at the time it was the first trafficking case handled by the State Grand Jury; the legislature granted the authority to the State Grand Jury in 2015 so investigators could pursue cases across county lines.
According to investigators, Matthews, along with two men and three women, forced minors into prostitution. The group pimped out young girls in Lexington, Richland, Orangeburg and Aiken counties.
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On Tuesday, as the trial got under way, Assistant Attorney General Heather Weiss said before a jury that Matthews encouraged and enticed minors into prostitution. She said the girls who were prostituted do not have a choice on whether to be victims, because they are minors.
“If they’re under 18 and someone else gets the money, it is sex trafficking,” Weiss said. “It is human trafficking.”
But Matthews’ attorney, Tivis Sutherland, argued to the jury that the government was wrong in this case and warned the jury their decision would ultimately be a landmark case for the S.C. Attorney General’s office.
“The decision we have to make is when do you become responsible for what you do,” said Sutherland, saying prosecutors were calling the case “human trafficking” solely based on the age of the girls.
After an FBI expert and a Richland County Sheriff’s deputy testified, Benjamin called for a lunch break. When Weiss and Sutherland returned, they presented a plea deal for Matthews.
Before accepting the plea, Matthews had to admit to coercing a runaway from a Department of Juvenile Justice home into prostitution. The girl once tried running away from Matthews to Rock Hill, but was picked up again when she had no where to go. The next time she ran away was in 2014, when she called the sheriff’s department.
Matthews also had to admit to trafficking a different girl, whose parents were able to lure her away from Matthews by inviting her to a restaurant. Other minors also were named by their initials as being forced into prostitution.
Kinli Abee, an assistant attorney general, also said Matthews was still prostituting the girls while he was in jail so that he could make bond. She said part of the reason both sides agreed to a plea deal was to spare victims from having to testify.
Sutherland later said it was the best possible outcome under the circumstances.
“(Matthews) was looking at some pretty steep consequences if he lost, which was more likely than not going to be the case,” Sutherland said.
If Matthews had gotten the maximum sentence on each charge, he was looking at 152 years in prison, Benjamin told him.