Ohio Supreme Court ruling demonstrates ‘deep misunderstanding’ of human trafficking

In a ruling Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court acknowledged the horrors of human trafficking, but ultimately disregarded the reality of trafficking’s grip over a person’s life.

Alexis Martin, 20, is currently incarcerated in Dayton Correctional Institution.

Alexis Martin 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.

In 2013, Alexis’s trafficker Angelo Kerney and his brother were shot during a robbery at the house where they held Alexis. When the robbery began, the trafficker’s brother was sexually abusing Alexis — who was only 15 years old and was incapable of lawfully consenting. Alexis was terrified by the unexpected shooting and traumatized by the trafficking and abuse. But, Alexis hoped that this was finally a chance for freedom.

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; she also didn’t know she was entitled this type of advocate.

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

Alexis, with a new attorney, appealed her case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. The state prosecutor had multiple opportunities to liberate Alexis, but instead fought to keep her trapped.

On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, while Alexis was clearly a victim of trafficking, any crimes she may have committed could not be related to the sex slavery, abuse and violence she endured.

The Ohio Supreme Court recognized specific, troubling details about the trafficker’s control and exploitation of Alexis.

“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.’”

Despite this recognition and contrary to the facts presented, the court’s decision proceeds to say “…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 advocates for survivors of human trafficking, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center disagrees the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision. Our attorneys see the real-life effects of human trafficking on a daily basis.

“Today’s decision reveals the Court’s deep misunderstanding about the realities of sex trafficking,” said Sasha Naiman, deputy director at OJPC. “Alexis was a child – abused, traumatized, and controlled by violent pimps. Instead of getting services and protection from our justice system, she was sent to adult prison – potentially for life.”

OJPC, Advocating Opportunity and others submitted an Amicus Brief in the case, arguing that Alexis’ alleged crimes appeared to be motivated by trafficking, and that her imprisonment didn’t serve justice for anyone involved.

“Given the undisputed facts, the majority’s opinion reaches an illogical conclusion through a contorted analysis,” said Megan Mattimoe of Advocating Opportunity. “This conclusion is contrary to the legislature’s intent and who we are as Ohioans. This cannot stand. Alexis Martin must be released.”

In a thoughtful, strong dissent, Justice O’Donnell underscores that “[i]t is axiomatic that the robbery and murder of Kerney, Martin’s sex trafficker, who was trafficking and exploiting her at the time of the robbery, related to her victimization because he controlled her at that time and she had a slavish relationship with him.”

OJPC and advocates statewide applaud Justice O’Donnell’s apt dissent. “Because the juvenile court failed to appoint a guardian ad litem for her, it never heard any recommendations from a guardian ad litem that would have been in her best interest,” the dissent says. “That failure denied her right to due process because it deprived her of the opportunity to present recommendations to the juvenile court about other dispositional alternatives and recommendations or treatment alternatives … that would be in her best interest.”

OJPC, Advocating Opportunity, and other advocates haven’t given up on Alexis’ fight for freedom.

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

AP news story on this case and decision:

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