Freed death row inmate/motivational speaker in jail, accused of sex trafficking

Isaiah McCoy

HONOLULU (AP) - Isaiah McCoy walked out of a Delaware prison a free man in January 2017, five years after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

A judge found him not guilty at a retrial, and McCoy soon began enjoying the limelight that came with his exoneration. He reveled in speaking engagements before lawyers associations and anti-death penalty groups.

"People were loving my story," McCoy said.

But in less than a year, he went from death row in Delaware to giving speeches about wrongful convictions to back behind bars.

Now, he's in a detention center in Hawaii, where he is charged with seven counts of sex trafficking.

He told The Associated Press from the Honolulu Federal Detention Center he's again accused of a crime he didn't commit, and he'll use his knowledge of the law - learned during years of incarceration - to represent himself at his upcoming trial.

Prosecutors aren't impressed. They say McCoy became a pimp after moving to Hawaii and that he threatened and coerced young women into prostitution. They call his arguments for dropping the charges, including vindictive prosecution, "conclusory and baseless."

A Tuesday hearing is scheduled on McCoy's motion to dismiss the case.

McCoy traces his criminal history to a tender age, 7 or 8, when he began dealing drugs, which led to gang membership.

But after years landing in and out prisons and jails, he seemed to have some direction and hope when he was released from death row. He was able to hug his daughter - conceived right before he went to prison - for the first time.

McCoy's exoneration also thrust him into a spotlight he always craved, and he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

"He's a powerful speaker," said Magdaleno "Leno" Rose-Avila, executive director of Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that opposes the death penalty. "He's especially powerful with youth."

While McCoy was in L.A., a University of Hawaii law student contacted him about speaking at a criminal justice reform rally she organized at the state Capitol. McCoy thought it would be a good opportunity to visit his mother and siblings who had moved to Hawaii.

McCoy sounded well-spoken and sincere at the April 2017 Hawaii speaking engagement, said Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, who also spoke at the rally. "He has the ability to capture people's attention."

McCoy decided to stay in Hawaii after spending time with his four nieces.

"Everything in his life was hitting on all cylinders," said one of his brothers, Daniel Moody. "He didn't have any plans for anything negative."

By September, McCoy was in the news. He spoke to a Honolulu TV news station after a friend was arrested and charged with a fatal Waikiki shooting. McCoy, who was not a suspect in the case, told Hawaii News Now police targeted Jordan Smith because he's black. McCoy said he brought Smith, the brother of a childhood friend, to Hawaii from Delaware for a fresh start.

While working as a security guard for a Waikiki hotel in an area of the tourist mecca known for prostitution, McCoy started dating a woman who he says worked as a stripper and prostitute. He could relate to her, and she wasn't judgmental about his time behind bars.

He said the woman is one of the seven alleged victims in the indictment against him.

McCoy said he and the woman had a falling out, and she went to Honolulu's Susannah Wesley Community Center - a nonprofit human services association that helps trafficking victims - and lied about being afraid of McCoy in exchange for a plane ticket out of Hawaii. The other alleged victims did the same, he said.

"All of these females were prostitutes before I met them," McCoy said. "Why would I have to force someone to do what they're already doing?"

The center's executive director, Ronald Higashi, declined to comment on McCoy's claims.

Prosecutors say McCoy is so dangerous to his victims that they've gone to great lengths to ensure their names are not released.

McCoy's Army soldier wife, Tawana Roberts, is a co-defendant in the federal case. They wed six days after meeting at a Honolulu nightclub. She has pleaded not guilty and hasn't responded to a request for an interview in the same detention center where her husband is held.

Roberts is charged with prostitution in a separate case in state court. According to police documents in that case, McCoy was actively pimping in Hawaii since December 2017.

In January, authorities conducted a sting involving an undercover officer with a pretend foot fetish who set up a meeting in a Waikiki hotel room. Roberts and another woman who showed up with her were arrested.

The next day, a federal grand jury returned a sealed indictment charging McCoy and Roberts with one count of sex trafficking. Another indictment later added six more counts.

McCoy will represent himself at his trial, scheduled for July, with a court-appointed lawyer standing by as needed. McCoy represented himself during his initial murder trial.

He boasts of his courtroom prowess at that trial: "I'm impeaching witnesses at every turn. I'm asking excellent questions. I gave wonderful closing arguments."

He gets louder and more animated reminiscing about his performance: "I'm thinking, 'I got this.'"

The jury found him guilty.

"Being on the streets, I learned to be numb to a situation. You become emotionally unattached," McCoy said. "It wasn't me. It was my client this was happening to."

Moody said McCoy's family is confident he will successfully fight the new charges.

The lawyers who represented McCoy in an appeal and at his retrial sent letters supporting him in the Hawaii case. So did Philip Primason, a private investigator who worked on his Delaware defense team.

"He wanted to become a public speaker and advocate, educating the public about the incarceration crisis, the enormous public risks of the death penalty and to advocate for innocence," Primason wrote. "I was very pleased to see this become a reality."