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If Cyntoia Brown Can Be Released from Prison, Why Not Trafficking Survivor Alexis Martin?

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam just granted clemency to Brown, who was forced to trade sex for money, but Ohio’s governor declined this week to do the same for Martin.

Alexis MartinOhio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections

When Alexis Martin was 15, Angelo Kerney, the man she says forced her into exotic dancing and selling drugs for him, was shot and killed by a man who came to rob him. Martin, who was having sex with Kerney’s brother in another room at the time, was accused of being in on the plot. That was Nov. 7, 2013. She’s 20 now, serving a 21-years-to-life sentence in a Dayton, Ohio, prison for his murder.

Martin’s attorneys say her case was mishandled because, as a minor who had been trafficked, she was entitled to protections under Ohio’s Safe Harbor law. Her case has parallels to that of Cyntoia Brown, who was also serving a lengthy sentence for a murder committed while she was in the sex trade as a minor. Brown has been in prison for 15 years and was granted a commutation this week by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

“It means a lot to me that [Cyntoia Brown] is getting clemency,” Martin told The Appeal through her attorney, Jennifer M. Kinsley.

Martin’s attorneys had hoped that Brown’s shortened sentence (she’ll be released in August) could bolster Martin’s chances. They and other advocates have been pushing Ohio Governor John Kasich to grant Martin clemency before he leaves office this Monday.

But when asked if Kasich was still considering clemency for Martin, his office sent a list of people who will soon be granted clemency that did not include her. His press secretary said there would be no further approvals.

Kinsley vowed to keep fighting. “Just because Governor Kasich has not elected to do anything on her case doesn’t mean Governor-elect [Mike] DeWine can’t,” Kinsley told The Appeal, “and we will absolutely push forward in the hopes the governor-elect will see justice done in this case.”

Kinsley described Martin and Brown as “very similarly situated people.” Brown was 16 when her boyfriend at the time “sexually assaulted her and made her prostitute herself,” her attorney wrote in court documents. In 2004, she shot and killed a man who had picked her up for sex and whose behavior, she said, made her fear for her life. She told police she acted in self-defense. The case, though widely misrepresented, garnered national attention.

Martin’s case has drawn far less scrutiny, but advocates say it’s just as troubling. The year before her arrest, in 2012, Ohio passed a Safe Harbor law meant to protect people who have been trafficked. Under this law, if the juvenile court where Martin was first sent determined she was trafficked and her offenses were related to her trafficking situation, it could temporarily suspend her charges pending her participation in court-mandated services.

It’s frustrating to know that Governor Kasich could have helped and chose not to.

Megan Mattimoe Advocating Opportunity

Megan Mattimoe, executive director and senior staff attorney at Advocating Opportunity, an Ohio-based organization that serves people who have been trafficked, worked on Martin’s appeal. She says it should have remained in juvenile court, and that she was denied the protections Safe Harbor affords people who have been trafficked, like being appointed a guardian ad litem.

At the time of Martin’s juvenile court hearing, the judge, Linda Teodosio, said Martin had a “very clear history of human trafficking.” Despite this, a guardian ad litem was not appointed. Teodosio did not respond to a request for comment. Martin’s case went to adult court, where she pleaded guilty to murder and felony assault. Her case has been under appeal ever since. 

“The impact for Alexis was so heavy,” Mattimoe told The Appeal. “People wonder why victims don’t ask for help. It’s this, you ask and they use it against you, and then don’t help either.”

This year, Martin’s case made it to the Ohio Supreme Court, where the state countered that though she was a minor engaged in the sex trade, a psychological evaluation had described this as “adult sexual enterprises.” Attorneys representing the state also contended that the Safe Harbor law does not protect Martin because she wasn’t charged with commercial sex-related offenses, and that the crimes she was accused of were unrelated to her having been trafficked.

Mattimoe helped write the Safe Harbor law, and disputes that characterization. The law was necessary, she told The Appeal, because “there’s a lot of situations where kids are forced to commit crimes at the behest of the trafficker or in self-defense.”

Safe Harbor, said Mattimoe, does not exclude murder, assault, or robbery; it could be applied to any offense. The guardian ad litem, she said, is supposed to investigate the circumstances of the case and make recommendations about how to promote the trafficking survivor’s best interests. “It could be they are stealing food because they were thrown out of their house and they were working with a trafficker and are hungry, or it could be the trafficker forced them into a theft ring. It could be the trafficker forced them to carry drugs for them in order to shield them—we’ve had cases like that.”

I’m fighting for every girl that is in the same position as me or can be.

Alexis Martin trafficking survivor

In August, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld Martin’s conviction. In its ruling, a seven-justice panel didn’t dispute that she had been trafficked, but said she failed to prove her offenses were related to trafficking.

One of the justices dissented, writing, “At the time of the incidents leading to this appeal, Alexis Martin, then age 15, was a human trafficking victim being manipulated by Angelo Kerney. … It 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.” He concluded that Martin had been denied due process.

Advocates hoped Kasich, who signed the Safe Harbor law in 2012, would act to grant Martin’s petition. “Women, especially women of color, are punished for defending themselves,” said Dorinda Baez, a Columbus activist who organized a rally for both Brown and Martin in December. “It’s completely not fair that they are behind bars.”

Mattimoe said they will continue to push for clemency for Martin. “It’s frustrating to know that Governor Kasich could have helped and chose not to. He was a huge proponent of the Safe Harbor legislation.”

Hearing that Cyntoia Brown would be freed did lift Martin’s spirits, said Kinsley, her attorney. “It’s not she that gets to go home, but it helps her to understand that there is a legal system and a process for people like her.”

Martin, speaking through Kinsley, emphasized that her hope for clemency is not for her alone. “I want people to know that I’m not only fighting for my life, but I’m fighting for every girl that is in the same position as me or can be.”