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Cyntoia Brown isn’t an isolated case of injustice

OJPC and others are pushing for Alexis Martin’s release from prison

People all over the country are discussing and debating the treatment of human trafficking survivors in America’s criminal justice system. This is due to one sensational case of injustice — that of Cyntoia Brown of Tennessee.

Cyntoia Denise Brown was serving a life sentence for killing a man who bought her for sex when she was 16 years old. After 15 years in prison, Cyntoia was granted clemency by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. She’ll be released on parole August 7, national news outlets report.

Cyntoia received an outpouring of support by advocacy groups, politicians, even celebrities. Her life and case even inspired a documentary, which brought awareness to the phenomenon of human trafficking survivors who are incarcerated for crimes committed as a result of trafficking.

Some find Cyntoia’s case incredible. However, there are many cases just like hers — even in Ohio.

The case of Alexis Martin echoes many of the same horrific details of Cyntoia’s case.

Alexis Martin

Alexis grew up with drug-addicted, abusive parents. As a young child, she was a victim of sexual assault. A few years later, Alexis was kidnapped and exploited by violent sex traffickers. Alexis told a juvenile court probation officer about the kidnapping and attempted to contact family members, but no one helped.

Alexis was arrested in connection with the robbery and murder, and the juvenile court recognized that she was a victim of human trafficking. Under Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law, Alexis should have been granted a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem gives recommendations about a juvenile’s best interests and the most effective responses from the court, like addiction treatment and mental health services. Then, the court can put all charges on hold, place the juvenile in appropriate diversion activities, and – when the diversion is complete — dismiss and expunge all records of the case.

However, Alexis never received a guardian ad litem because her attorney, admittedly, did not understand the Ohio Safe Harbor Law. Alexis did not know she was entitled to special protections as a survivor of trafficking, and her attorney never advocated for these protections.

Instead, Alexis’ case was moved to adult court and she was convicted, at age 16, of murder and other felonies against her traffickers. The court sentenced her to 21 years to life in prison.

Alexis, with new attorneys, appealed her case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. In August 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against Alexis – finding that she would have to continue serving her sentence. The Court recognized that Alexis was clearly a victim of trafficking. But, the Court did not understand how Alexis’s alleged crimes were related to her being a victim of sex trafficking – because Alexis’s initial trial attorney failed to present this evidence in juvenile court.

“There is also evidence that Kerney trafficked Martin,” the ruling said. “According to Martin, Kerney had her perform exotic dances, sell drugs for him, prepare about eight other girls for prostitution, and collect money from them. Martin used the name Alexis Love and referred to Kerney as ‘Dad.’ …[While] Martin did not present evidence that her violent offenses were related to her victimization, juveniles in future cases might be able to present such evidence.”

As staunch supporter for survivors of human trafficking, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center disagrees with the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, and continues to fight for Alexis for freedom. Alongside Cincinnati-based attorney Jenifer Kinsley and organizations like Advocating Opportunity, OJPC is asking Ohio’s Governor to grant clemency in this case – following suit with Tennessee Governor Haslam’s clemency for Cyntoia. Like Cyntoia, Alexis should not remain in a cage – potentially for life. She should finally be free.

“Through the courts, the Governor, or the legislature, we have to find a path to freedom and justice for Alexis,” Naiman said.

Read more about OJPC’s work on behalf of survivors of human trafficking.