WILMINGTON — Members of a group called “Campaign to End Cash Bail” appeared at a bond hearing at the New Hanover County Courthouse on Monday afternoon hoping that Ashanti Welton McLean, an African-American transgender woman arrested last year during a vice prostitution sting, would receive a significant reduction in a $250,000 secured bond.
Instead, the bond was reduced to $225,000 as a trial was set for November 18. McLean’s mother, Tammy McLean-Watson, and 12 other members of the group sat in the courtroom as Superior Court Judge Josh Willey announced the decision.
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On January 24, 2018, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) officers and FBI field agents responded to an ad posted on Backpage, an online marketplace primarily used to sell sex, later shut down by federal authorities in April, 2018. When the undercover officers arrived at a hotel near the Mayfair shopping center off Military Cutoff Road, they discovered the woman featured in the ad was a 17-year-old minor.
In another room of the same hotel suite they found McLean, 26 at the time, and outside was Marvarlus Snead, 31, according to McLean’s defense attorney Merritt Wagoner.
Each ultimately received eight charges related to the human trafficking of a minor while Snead received an additional 18 counts of manufacturing child pornography. Snead is out of custody after posting a $500,000 bond.
McLean, on the other hand, initially posted a $25,000 secured bond for a lesser charge of promoting the prostitution of a minor. But when additional charges came forward, including human trafficking of a child victim, she was unable to pay the ensuing $250,000 bond.
“She’s been in custody for the excess of a year, with no ability to post bond,” Wagoner told Judge Willey on Monday afternoon.
Wagoner argued that although he recognized McLean was a “transgender escort,” she was only involved in sexual services with adults and was not involved in promoting the 17-year-old as a prostitute. He said the minor in question previously told court officials that “Ms. McLean had no idea what I was doing.”
While multiple pornographic photos and videos were discovered on Snead’s phone, he said nothing was found on McLean’s phone to indicate she was promoting the minor as a prostitute.
Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan disagreed, saying that it had become clear during the investigation that the minor did not post the ads to Backpage herself.
“She is the type of child preyed upon by people like Marvarlus Snead and Ashanti McLean,” Jordan said.
She said social media research indicated Snead was the recruiter of the minor, but electronic conversations between Snead and McLean showed that both were involved in her prostitution.
“This is a record of her own words,” Jordan said, adding there was no evidence that McLean took photographs of the minor herself.
Before the judge’s decision, Wagoner argued for a $25,000 bond requiring McLean to wear an ankle monitor, citing her lack of criminal history and a community of support, evident by the group behind him. He called the bond “punitive” in nature.
“That’s a lot for this family,” Wagoner said.
‘Easy prey in the criminal legal system’
On Monday morning, Roberta Penn of the Campaign to End Cash Bail issued a statement admonishing District Attorney Ben David’s office for bias against transgender and African-American individuals.
Penn said McLean was initially treated as a victim “until an officer saw that Ashanti [was] still designated male on her driver’s license. She was then considered a perpetrator and charged with promoting prostitution of a minor.”
Although Snead, also an African-American, had multiple outstanding warrants against him, she said he was able to pay the bond and walk free.
“Transgender black women are easy prey in the criminal legal system because racism and transphobia are prevalent in our society,” Penn wrote. “Their lives are in danger both in and out of the system.”
Samantha Dooies, spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said the court holds no bias against McLean.
“We remain committed to the prosecution of serious crimes without regard to the race, sex, nationality, or socioeconomic status of defendants or victims,” Dooies said.
She also said that McLean’s lengthy stay in the New Hanover County Detention Center before her trial was not unusual for cases that involved such serious allegations.
“That’s not outside the scope of normal,” Dooies said.
Penn wrote that McLean has been held in administrative segregation in the men’s section of the county’s detention center since January 2018, a period of more than 18 months.
“That means that she is in a cage by herself 23 out of 24 hours a day,” Penn wrote. “She is not allowed to attend classes and support groups with either the male or female population. Although she had never been arrested, she is being held under a $250,000 bond.”
McLean-Watson, who sat outside the courthouse with other members of the group before the hearing, said the group ensured that her transgender daughter would be isolated from the start, and said her daughter was hopeful and in good spirits.
“We’re here because I want to get Ashanti out,” McLean-Watson said. “I want the bond reduced; it’s not fair for her to be in [jail] all this time.”
She also said that McLean was initially told by officers she would not be arrested, but when they looked at her license, “they arrested her because they found out she was a male.”
In the statement, Penn said arresting officers were rude and disrespectful to her, “and the officers at the detention center have been dismissive of her.” The group’s presence at the hearing, she argued, would show the judge and district attorney’s office that McLean had the community support needed to get her bond reduced or unsecured.
“It will also send a message to the DA’s office that we see how they are criminalizing poverty, people who are innocent until proven guilty and non-violent in the application of bail are biased against transgender and Black individuals,” the statement read.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815