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.