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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Affirmed Adult-Court Conviction for Teen Who Participated in Trafficker’s Murder

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that the Summit County juvenile court did not follow the law when it allowed a 15-year-old human-trafficking victim to face adult charges for her role in the robbery and murder of the man who trafficked her. However, the Court affirmed the girl’s conviction and 21-years-to-life prison sentence.

In a 6-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that Alexis Martin could not prove that, had the juvenile court ordered a guardian ad litem (GAL) to issue a report on whether it would be in Martin’s best interest to remain in the juvenile system, the judge’s decision to bind over Martin to adult court would have changed. Martin pleaded guilty to charges related to her role in the 2013 murder of Angelo Kerney and wounding of Alecio Samuel in Akron.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French explained that for Martin to benefit from a 2012 law — R.C. 2152.021(F) — providing additional protections to juvenile victims of human trafficking, she would have to prove her crimes were “related to” her victimization. Justice French wrote there was no evidence that Martin was “compelled or coerced into committing the offenses,” nor was there evidence that she committed them to free herself from Kerney, her trafficker.

Justice French’s opinion was joined by Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine. Second District Court of Appeals Judge Michael T. Hall, sitting for former Justice William M. O’Neill who resigned, also joined the opinion. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell in a dissenting opinion wrote the juvenile court committed “plain error” in failing to follow R.C. 2152.021(F). He indicated the juvenile court stated it had reason to believe Martin was a human-trafficking victim and that her offenses were related to her victimization. He concluded that Martin’s guilty plea in adult court should be vacated and the matter remanded to juvenile court.

Girl Joins Robbery Plot
Martin was 15 when she joined three adults in a plan to rob Kerney and burglarize his home. In November 2013, Martin and Janae Jones went to Kerney’s house to distract the 36-year-old Kerney and 20-year-old Samuel. Jones went upstairs to have sex with Kerney while Martin had sex with Samuel downstairs. Two men, Dashaun Spear and Travaski Jackson, entered the house. Spear went upstairs and shot Kerney twice in the head, killing him. Samuel was shot in the head after begging for his life. He survived, but sustained serious injuries. He was able to identify Martin and the others.

Because she was a juvenile, Martin was charged with delinquency counts that would constitute aggravated murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, and tampering with evidence if she were an adult.

Court Considers Troubled Childhood
Martin’s parents were often absent from her life, and both her parents and her stepfather were involved with drugs. Her mother was imprisoned for drug trafficking, and her father physically abused her. She was shuffled between family members and foster parents, and at age 8 was diagnosed with depression.

Martin told authorities that when she was 10 and 11 years old, a 21-year old man repeatedly raped her, and she attempted suicide when she was 12. At that age, a 16-year-old boy raped and impregnated her, and she suffered a miscarriage. She had the name of the unborn child tattooed on her torso. She stated that at 14 or 15 she was kidnapped and forced into exotic dancing.

Martin said Kerney forced her to perform exotic dances, sell drugs for him, prepare about eight other girls for prostitution, and collect money from them.

The juvenile court conducted an amenability hearing to determine whether Martin should remain in the juvenile system or be tried as an adult. Court psychologist Thomas Webb testified that Martin had a bad experience “in terms of a possible kidnap” and was involved in dancing “possibly under very adverse conditions.”

The juvenile judge questioned the Summit County prosecutor and Martin’s attorney about Martin’s status as a human-trafficking victim and how the court should consider the fact in determining whether to retain jurisdiction or transfer Martin to adult court.

In the juvenile court’s findings supporting its decision to transfer the case to adult court, the judge did consider Martin to be a human-trafficking victim, but neither the court, nor Martin’s attorney, nor the prosecutor at that point, invoked R.C. 2152.021. The provision, known as Ohio’s “safe harbor” law benefits certain human-trafficking victims charged with juvenile delinquency.

Under the safe harbor law, if a juvenile court finds a minor is the victim of human trafficking and the offenses charged to the minor are “related to” victimization, then the court is required to appoint a GAL. The GAL, who cannot be the minor’s attorney, must deliver an independent assessment to the judge on what is in the child’s best interest. Based on the recommendation, a juvenile judge can order the minor into diversion or treatment programs and, if completed, the delinquency charges are dropped.

Juvenile Contests Bindover
While Martin did not raise the safe harbor law in juvenile court, she did in adult court. She challenged the court’s jurisdiction to consider her case and requested the court to stay its proceedings, vacate the transfer, and remand the case to juvenile court where a GAL could be appointed. The adult court ruled it had no authority to change the juvenile court’s transfer decision.

Martin pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated murder with a three-year firearm specification and one count of felonious assault. She pled with the understanding that she could appeal the adult court’s jurisdiction and argue for transfer back to juvenile court. The adult court sentenced her to 21 years to life, and Martin appealed her conviction to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the sentence. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case.

Lack of Objection Changed Appeal Requirements
Martin first raised the issue of failing to follow the safe harbor law when her case reached adult court. Justice French explained that because Martin did not raise the safe harbor issue in juvenile court, she now must meet a higher standard to have the decision overturned. Martin must show the failure to appoint the GAL was “plain error.”

Determining what constitutes committing “plain error” differs between civil and criminal proceedings. The opinion noted that in the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2017 State v. Morgan case, the Court determined which plain error standard of review applies to a juvenile delinquency proceeding. While a juvenile proceeding is civil in nature, aspects of it can be criminal, and when considering the criminal aspects, the plain error standard for criminal cases applies, the Court stated.

The opinion explained the criminal-level plain error standard requires proof that: 1) the court made an error; 2) the error was plain, which means there was an obvious defect in the proceeding; and 3) the trial court error must have affected the outcome of the proceeding.

Martin argued the juvenile court committed plain error because it had reason to believe she was a human-trafficking victim and that her offenses were related to her victimization. The prosecutor agreed the court had reason to believe Martin was a victim, but disputed whether her offenses were related to her victimization.

The Court majority stated it agreed with Martin that she was a human-trafficking victim and that there was some evidence Kerney was her trafficker.

“But even if there was clear, undisputed evidence that Kerney trafficked Martin, she cannot carry her plain-error burden,” the Court stated. “The specific facts and evidence in this case do not show that her offenses were ‘related to’ her victimization.”

The opinion noted that Martin participated in the plan to rob Kerney. Martin also denied knowing that the men would be killed, and there is no evidence she was trafficked by any of her accomplices. The Court stated that Kerney and Samuel obviously did not play a role in directing Martin in a plot to rob and kill them, and there was no evidence that either of those men had previously directed Martin to commit similar offenses.

Because Martin could not prove her offenses were related to her victimization, the juvenile court did not commit plain error when it did not apply the safe harbor law before making the transfer to adult court, the Court concluded. The Court affirmed the Ninth District’s decision.

Court Addresses Aspects of Safe Harbor Rule
In the opinion’s conclusion, the Court noted the law was enacted because lawmakers recognized that human-trafficking victimization causes juvenile delinquency, and the law gives certain victims the chance to rebuild their lives and avoid the justice system.

“Defense counsel, prosecutors, and the courts must become familiar with this law and follow it when it applies,” the opinion stated.

The Court also addressed the prosecutor’s argument that the safe harbor law only applies to trafficked juveniles who committed nonviolent offenses. The Court countered that the legislature “placed no limitation on the offenses” to which the law can be applied. It noted that while Martin did not show that her violent offenses were related to victimization, “juveniles in future cases might be able to present such evidence.”

Dissent Finds Juvenile Court Made Error
Justice O’Donnell noted the Court has previously stated that the plain error analysis should be applied only in “extremely rare cases where exceptional circumstances require its application to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” He wrote the record of the case establishes plain error did occur.

In his dissent, he stated that the judge found Martin was a human-trafficking victim. He also asserted that the majority required proof that the offenses were “related to victimization,” but that is not required by law.

“R.C. 2152.021(F) requires only that the court have a reason to believe that ‘the act charged is related to the child’s victimization.’ 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,” Justice O’Donnell wrote.

The dissent further noted the evidence established a relationship between Kerney and Martin and that she intended to make Kerney the victim of her act. It also stated that Martin collected money from other dancers Kerney controlled and she knew that money would be in the house at the time of the robbery.

The dissent concluded the crime was related to trafficking and that triggered the obligation to appoint a GAL who would have made a recommendation to the juvenile court in the best interest of the child instead of having the court transfer her case to the adult court for her prosecution resulting in her 21-year-sentence without the benefit of that recommendation and thereby affected the outcome of the proceeding. 

Justice O’Donnell concluded the plain error committed by the juvenile court in failing to appoint a GAL “resulted in a manifest miscarriage of justice,” which can only be corrected by vacating Martin’s plea and sentence and remanding the matter to the juvenile court for appointment of a GAL.

2016-1891. State v. Martin, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3226.

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