• There’s Still Hope: Justice for Zephi Trevino

    Though Cyntoia Brown’s case was nearly 15 years ago, a recent murder case in North Texas has sparked feelings of déjà vu nationwide as now 17-year-old Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino garners support from Hollywood in fighting against those who doubt her experience as a victim of sex trafficking. Victim blaming is hardly unique in the sex trafficking sphere as victims are continually portrayed as generally unsavory characters and criminals who are somehow at fault for the crimes inflicted upon them. Even in 2021 after decades of activism by victim advocacy groups, victim blaming is hugely prevalent within the criminal justice system and society at large. This prevalence is evident in Grand Prairie, Texas as prosecutors and law enforcement foster victim blaming myths in an effort to further their capital murder case against Zephi, who was a mere 16 years old at the time of the crime. Zephi’s story demonstrates that our criminal justice system continues to make the same mistakes it made in 2006 when teenager Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a man who sought to purchase sex from her. If 15 years has not been enough time to implement change and ensure child victims do not face the prison time and legal battles that Brown did, then it is time to face the facts: our criminal justice system is broken.

    Cyntoia Brown’s case is one that swept the nation just a few years ago as celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna drew attention to her case more than a decade following her conviction. Cyntoia Brown was a 16-year-old when she was trafficked by a drug dealer named Cut Throat. Brown’s trafficker forced her into prostitution and as a result, Brown found herself at the home of a 43-year-old man who purchased her for sex. This encounter ultimately ended with a traumatized and frightened Brown shooting and killing the 43-year-old predator, and though she was just a child, she was tried as an adult and convicted of murder and aggravated robbery. She was initially sentenced to life in prison, but Brown was finally released from prison in 2019 after the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, granted Brown clemency.

    In a case so starkly similar that we might as well be back in 2006, teenager Zephi Trevino faces capital murder and armed robbery charges following the 2019 deadly shooting of a 24-year-old man. Though her trafficker’s attorney argues that Zephi was never forced to do anything, Zephi is a victim of sex trafficking. At 16 years old, Zephi began a relationship with an 18-year-old classmate, Philip Baldenegro, that turned quickly volatile. Using drugs, physical threats, and emotional manipulation, Zephi’s trafficker forced her into selling herself to grown men. Zephi’s mother quickly noticed a change in her daughter’s behavior after her relationship with Baldenegro began, as Zephi began isolating herself, losing weight, and coming home in inappropriate clothes that were not her own. But she never could have guessed what was truly going on in Zephi’s life until this incident occurred.

    Zephi was in an apartment with her trafficker, Bardenegro, and another man, Jesse Martinez, when two grown men showed up to have sex with Zephi, who they believed to be 14 years old. Bardenegro and Martinez proceeded to beat the two pedophiles in an attempt to rob them, and Bardenegro ultimately shot and killed one of the men in the parking lot. Bardenegro’s attorney, David Finn, argues that Zephi was the mastermind behind the robbery, though she played no active role in the violence and was a 16-year-old child at the time. Like in Brown’s case, a judge ruled on February 12, 2021 that Zephi will be tried as an adult where she could face life in prison if convicted. And in another similarity to Brown’s case, Zephi has celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Demi Lovato advocating for justice on her behalf due to the outrageous charges against the teenager.

    Finn continues to point a finger at Zephi and claims that playing the victim is all a part of a false narrative that holds no weight against the supposed evidence. He states that pictures on Zephi’s phone show her smoking dope and having sex with several men, thus demonstrating that Zephi was choosing to prostitute herself and documented it. The victim blaming nature inherent in this man’s statements need not be refuted by anything other than the fact that Zephi was a child when the forced prostitution began. Under federal law, any child under the age of 18 involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sex trafficking. The presumption of coercion exists when a child is involved, so there is no requirement that force, fraud or coercion be proved like in adult sex trafficking cases. Though this is enough to demonstrate Zephi’s status as a victim, Zephi’s mother and her attorney continue to represent that there is evidence to prove that Bardenegro was abusing Zephi. Ultimately, Zephi was a minor and could not legally consent to sex with any adult men.

    Zephi’s case further illustrates how harmful the criminal justice system is to victims of sexual violence. Despite Zephi being a minor, she is being considered by the system as not only a willing participant, but an active perpetrator in the murder of a man that she did not actually shoot or physically harm herself. The criminal justice system failed Cyntoia Brown when she was 16 years old and had suffered horrific abuse, and the outpouring of support for Brown just a few years ago seemed as if it would spark change in the system. And though there have been efforts to change treatment of juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system, clearly there has not been enough done to prevent child victims from facing conviction as adults under the law.

    As it is currently, the criminal justice system is broken. The same wrongs continue to happen as child victims are treated as adult criminals despite clear evidence of abuse. Hashtags and celebrity support are great in raising awareness of the issue, but now is the time to effect change. Laws need to be passed that will protect child victims and prevent the kind of criminal prosecutions that teenagers like Cyntoia Brown and Zephi Trevino have experienced. There is still hope in Zephi’s case though, as her case has not reached the trial stage. There is an opportunity for the right people in the system to step in and right the wrong that has been put in motion by the ruling to treat Zephi as an adult in the criminal proceedings. Zephi Trevino deserves justice, so let’s ensure history does not repeat itself by speaking out and putting pressure on those prosecuting and presiding over Zephi’s case.


    Dana Branham, Family Says North Texas Teen Murder Suspect is Sex-Trafficking Victim; Co-Defendants’ Attorneys Call It a False Narrative, The Dallas Morning News,(Dec. 20, 2020), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/courts/2020/12/20/family-says-north-texas-teen-murder-suspect-is-sex-trafficking-victim-co-defendants-attorneys-call-it-a-false-narrative/.

    Markie Martin, 2 Teens Facing Capital Murder Charges Garner Attention of Hollywood, Newsnation, (Jan. 1, 2021), https://www.newsnationnow.com/us-news/southwest/teencapitalmurdercharges/.

    Bobby Allyn, Cyntoia Brown Released After 15 Years in Prison For Murder, NPR, (Aug. 7, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/08/07/749025458/cyntoia-brown-released-after-15-years-in-prison-for-murder.

    Markie Martin, 17-year-old Zephi Trevino To Be Tried As An Adult for 2019 Deadly Shooting, WIVB News, (Feb. 12, 2021), https://www.wivb.com/news/17-year-old-zephi-trevino-to-be-tried-as-an-adult-for-2019-deadly-shooting/.

    17-Year-Old Zephi Trevino To Be Tried As Adult for Capital Murder, Global Newswire, (Feb. 12, 2021), https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/02/12/2175178/0/en/17-Year-Old-Zephi-Trevino-To-Be-Tried-As-Adult-for-Capital-Murder.html.

    Allison Newcombe, Child Sex Trafficking: Legal Overview, American Bar Association, (Oct. 1, 2015), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-34/october-2015/child-sex-trafficking–legal-overview/#:~:text=The%20exclusion%20of%20the%20requirement,any%20child%20involved%20in%20a.

  • How the Justice System Failed Lisa Montgomery

    For the first time in nearly seventy years, the U.S. federal government executed a woman on January 13, 2021. Lisa Montgomery’s story is horrific, violent, and overwhelmingly complex, but, above all, her story deserves to be told. Lisa Montgomery committed a brutal crime causing unfathomable harm to a Missouri family, but Lisa Montgomery was herself a victim of incomprehensible abuse, sex trafficking, and, ultimately, neglect by government officials who were well aware of what was happening to her as a child. Her story is an example of exactly the kind of harm our justice system inflicts by turning a blind eye to abuse and ignoring victims.

    Knowing the horrific details of Lisa Montgomery’s childhood is important because these unimaginable experiences had permanent and traumatic effects on Lisa’s mental health. She was born with permanent brain damage due to her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy, and she grew up in what her half-sister, Diane Mattingly, terms, “a house of horrors.” Lisa’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, physically abused the sisters by beating them, throwing them into cold showers, and whipping them with belts, cords, and hangers. She forced the girls to watch as she brutally killed their family dog by smashing its head with a shovel. And when Lisa was just four years old and Diane was eight, one of Judy’s boyfriends began regularly going into the girls’ bedroom at night and raping Diane while Lisa lay in the bed just next to her. Social workers fortunately rescued Diane from the household and placed her in foster care, but Lisa was left in her mother’s care.

    One of Judy’s husbands, Lisa’s stepfather, began raping Lisa when she was eleven years old. This sexual abuse continued for years and further escalated when Lisa’s stepfather built a shed onto their trailer where he would regularly take Lisa to beat and rape her and allowed his friends to rape her there as well. Lisa experienced what can only be called sexual torture beginning in her early teens when her mother allowed strange men to rape Lisa for money and even allowed them to gang rape Lisa on multiple occasions. She also invited servicemen who did work around their home to rape young Lisa as payment for their services.

    This horrific abuse and sex trafficking went on for years, yet no one stepped in to save Lisa. Over the years, many people were aware of what was going on in Lisa’s home and no one did anything to stop it. School administrators suspected Lisa was likely being abused at home due to her dirty and ragged appearance every day as well as her suffering grades that led to her being moved into special needs classes. Yet, no one looked any further or reported anything to authorities. Lisa told one of her cousins, a law enforcement officer, about the abuse and even described to him how the men would sometimes tie her up, rape her, and urinate on her afterwards. Instead of reporting the abuse or telling anyone about it, Lisa’s cousin drove her home and left her there with her abusers. Further, Lisa’s mother as well as Lisa herself testified about the sexual assaults and abuse at the hands of her stepfather during divorce proceedings in an effort for Lisa’s mother to win custody. The judge in that case admonished Lisa’s mother for not reporting the abuse, but then the judge himself never reported the abuse. Instead, Lisa was allowed to continue to live in her mother’s care and continue to be regularly raped and abused.

    Lisa’s traumatic experiences unfortunately did not end when she reached adulthood. Rather, at eighteen years old, Lisa was pressured by her mother into marrying her stepbrother where the beatings and rape continued for years. One of Lisa’s brothers even found a home videotape where Lisa’s husband had filmed as he beat and raped her. Lisa had four children with her first husband, and then she underwent sterilization at the behest of her mother and husband. Lisa eventually divorced her stepbrother and married her second husband, Kevin Montgomery. At this point, signs of Lisa’s mental illnesses became clear as her family and friends stated she began to lose touch with reality and would “slip into a world of her own.” Despite the sterilization she underwent, Lisa repeatedly claimed to be pregnant in her second marriage when she was, in fact, not. The pregnancy delusions coupled with a custody battle from her ex-husband who threatened to expose her false pregnancy claims are the events that led up to the crime Lisa committed.

    In December of 2004, after falsely claiming to be pregnant since the spring, Lisa drove to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri. Stinnett was eight months pregnant at the time. Using an alias and a false pretense, Lisa entered Stinnett’s home and then proceeded to strangle Stinnett with a piece of rope. When Stinnett was unconscious, Lisa used a kitchen knife she had brought with her to cut the baby out of Stinnett’s womb. Miraculously the premature baby survived the attack, and Lisa took the baby home with her to Kansas where investigators found her the next day. She claimed to have given birth to the healthy baby herself, but she eventually confessed to killing Stinnett and kidnapping the baby.

    Since the crime in 2004, Lisa Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, and traumatic brain injury. Mental health experts including a clinical psychologist have said that Lisa was clearly in a state of psychosis at the time of the crime, but prosecutors argued that Lisa had clearly spent a lot of time planning the crime, as she brought rope, a knife, and a home birthing kit with her. Further, Lisa’s legal defense at trial did not adequately present Lisa’s history of trauma and childhood abuse in supporting her insanity defense, so she was convicted in 2007. The prosecutors in Lisa’s case pursued the death penalty, and the jury recommended a death sentence for the murder and kidnapping. Lisa’s trial attorney had never worked a capital case before, and though an experienced, renowned capital defense attorney, Judy Clarke, agreed to join the defense team, Lisa’s attorney proceeded to remove her from the case. This proved to be a fateful decision as the defense he put forth was woefully inadequate and resulted in Lisa being sent to federal death row.

    Many people have supported the death penalty in Lisa’s case due to the gruesome nature of the crime she committed, and the fact that the victim, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, and her family are certainly deserving of justice. But the problem in this case is not Lisa Montgomery—a woman who suffered untreated severe mental illness due to the years of torture and trauma she experienced. The problem in this case is a lack of accountability from the government and justice system. Judy Shaughnessy, the mother who prostituted her young daughter, who subjected her daughter to unconceivable sexual torture, who beat her daughter, was never held accountable for her evil acts. The numerous men who raped Lisa, including Lisa’s stepfather, her stepbrother turned husband, and the many strangers that Lisa’s mother profited from—these men were never held accountable for the overwhelming damage and trauma they inflicted on Lisa. The school administrators, law enforcement officers, judge, and other government officials in the community were never held accountable for the years of abuse perpetrated on Lisa that they knew about and chose to ignore rather than report. The prosecutors that sought the death penalty on a clearly mentally ill woman will never be held accountable for sending a victim to execution when they had the choice to allow her life imprisonment with mental health treatment. The defense team that poorly represented Lisa and failed to convey the gravity of her lengthy traumatic history will never be held accountable for their inadequate service to their client. And finally, the man who ignored the cries of a community pleading for mercy for a victim of such atrocities, Lisa’s last and final hope, Present Donald Trump will never be held accountable for failing to step in and save a woman who had suffered so much.

    It’s time that we recognize the failures of the criminal justice system and enact change to better identify, save, and protect victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Lisa Montgomery was not just a woman who commit an unthinkable crime—she was a child crying out for help. A teenager begging for escape. A young mother seeking protection. A grown woman pleading for mercy. And our justice system failed her. We failed Lisa Montgomery.


    Diane Mattingly, My Sister, Lisa Montgomery, Took a Life. Her Own Was Scarred By Unimaginable Abuse. Spare Her, Newsweek, (Nov. 11, 2019) https://www.newsweek.com/lisa-montgomery-life-sentence-death-row-abuse-1548750.

    Jessica Lussenhop, Lisa Montgomery: Looking For Answers in the Life of a Killer, BBC News, (Jan. 11, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55587260.

    Sandra Babcock, Lisa Montgomery: A Victim of Incest, Child Prostitution and Rape Faces Execution, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, (Oct. 19, 2020) https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/lisa-montgomery-a-victim-of-incest-child-prostitution-and-rape-faces-execution/.

    Ko Bragg, Lisa Montgomery Becomes First Woman to Be Executed By the Federal Government Since 1953, The 19th, (Jan. 13, 2021) https://19thnews.org/2021/01/lisa-montgomery-first-woman-executed-federal-government-since-1953/.

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