A full-page ad by actor Jamie Lee Curtis in the Dallas Morning News drew much-needed national attention to law enforcers’ responsibilities when children are exploited by predatory adult sex traffickers. It is an environment where things can go wrong very quickly for kids, and in the case of Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino, that’s exactly what happened last year when she was 16. Trevino could face prosecution starting Jan. 4 for a murder that occurred when her defenders say she was being trafficked for sex.
While the legal lines remain murky on an adult’s right to sell sex for money, there is no gray area when it comes to children. “The term prostitution can delude or confuse one’s understanding of this form of child sexual exploitation,” the U.S. Justice Department says. “It is important to emphasize that the children involved are victims.”
In California, lawmakers in 2016 passed a law to ban law enforcers from arresting sex workers under age 18 on prostitution-related charges, which opponents argued was an attempt by liberal lawmakers and then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris to legalize underage prostitution. It was, in fact, an effort to codify that children cannot be arrested and punished for a crime in which they are the victims. Texas has no such law.
The legal question facing prosecutors in Dallas County, Texas, is the extent to which Trevino can be regarded as an accomplice after two men allegedly lured for sex wound up being shot. One was killed and the other wounded. Trevino spent more than a year in jail awaiting trial, accused of having lured the men into a trap set up by Philip Baldenegro, then 18. Trevino’s parents say Baldenegro forced their daughter into prostitution, having drugged and threatened her with physical violence if she did not cooperate.
Baldenegro admits to the shootings, but his lawyer denies sex trafficking was involved and contends that Trevino was a witting accomplice. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot says he wants to try Trevino as an adult, meaning she could face a 40-year prison sentence.
“On what planet does it make sense that we are going to charge her with capital murder? It’s a disastrously failed social policy,” says Jason Flom, a founding board member of The Innocence Project.
“Our criminal justice system must be better than this,” Curtis wrote in her ad. “All the DA has to do is drop the charges against this innocent girl. She didn’t hold a gun. She didn’t create the scenario. She was being sold for sex. And now, after being abused and victimized by her trafficker, she’s being victimized again.”