Zephi Trevino's Lawyers Are Ready to Take Her Case to the Texas Supreme Court

Zephi Trevino was indicted in May on two felony charges for her alleged part in a fatal 2019 robbery, but her legal team says they're confident she won't be convicted.
Zephi Trevino was indicted in May on two felony charges for her alleged part in a fatal 2019 robbery, but her legal team says they're confident she won't be convicted. Getty Images
Lawyers for a North Texas woman who claims she was a teenage sex-trafficking victim coerced into taking part in a murder and robbery plan to ask the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider how the state decides which juveniles are tried in adult criminal court.

Zephaniah "Zephi" Trevino was 16 when she allegedly took part in a robbery that ended in gunfire that killed one person and wounding another. Her case has attracted attention far and wide. It was highlighted on the Wrongful Conviction Podcast, which helped spread Trevino’s story across social media. Then, celebrities Kim Kardashian West and Jamie Lee Curtis made public pleas asking prosecutors to charge her as a juvenile instead of an adult.

The Dallas County Juvenile Board certified Trevino as an adult in February. Her legal team challenged the certification in an appeals court. That court was then tasked with conducting a "meaningful review" of the certification and ultimately upheld the juvenile board's decision.

Her lawyers now say the review process in Texas appeals courts is incomplete and doesn’t take all evidence into account. They want the Texas Supreme Court to change this process. If successful, they hope this will allow them to bring the certification back to the appeals court, present evidence they say was left out of the review and get the certification reversed. Some of the evidence Trevino's legal team says was left out of the review includes social and psychological evaluations they say support the sex-trafficking claims.

Her lawyers, family and supporters say she was being sex-trafficked by the person who actually pulled the trigger that day. They claim she was used to lure in the eventual shooting victims with promises of sex.

The shootings took place in August 2019 at a Grand Prairie apartment complex, killing Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Murillo and injuring Christian Lobo.

"It's a fart in a stiff wind." – Lee Bright, attorney

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Trevino had invited the men to the apartment. Upon arriving, they met Trevino and one of her friends. Trevino and Lobo went into a bedroom while Murillo and the friend stayed in the living room.

Lobo and Murillo started to undress, which is when two other men, Jesse Martinez and Phillip Baldenegro, appeared in the apartment, authorities allege. They'd been hiding, waiting to rob Lobo and Murillo.

When the victims were attacked, they fled the apartment and headed toward their car, but Martinez, Baldenegro and Trevino chased them. Lobo and Murillo made it down to their car, where the fight continued. While it did, Trevino searched the car for valuables, police say.

Amid the chaos, Baldengro fired his gun, killing Murillo and wounding Lobo, according to investigators.

Trevino was arrested on Aug. 29, 2019. In the investigation that followed, Trevino’s lawyers say, officers never took her sex-trafficking claims seriously.

According to the Supreme Court filing, Grand Prairie Police Detective Joshua Stelter didn’t ask if Murillo and Lobo intended to purchase sex that day. The filing also claims Stelter acknowledged that Trevino “made an outcry of sex trafficking” to another detective, but that didn’t seem to be taken into account in the investigation.

Shannon Wright with the Dallas County Juvenile Department was later tasked with creating a social evaluation for Trevino.

“While Ms. Wright testified that she was made aware that [Trevino] had made claims of being a victim of sex trafficking, Ms. Wright failed to do any further investigation, testifying that she ‘was not allowed to ask questions in reference to sex trafficking,’” the Supreme Court filing said.

Dallas County Juvenile Department's Leilani Hinton psychologically evaluated Trevino, noting that the girl had “significant anxiety and a mood disorder.”

In September 2020 testimony, Hinton said she reviewed a child-sex-trafficking referral form sent by Lyndsey Bowden, a mental health clinician at the Dallas County Juvenile Department.

The filing says Hinton reviewed the form and confirmed that Bowden indicated Trevino was a trafficking victim. Bowden said Trevino identified Baldenegro and Martinez as her traffickers.

In her report, Bowden said Trevino "met one of the men who exploited her on Instagram, began a perceived romantic relationship with him before she was trafficked. Her offense was related to a trafficking incident.”

The referral form also indicated that a report was made to the Dallas Police child exploitation unit in October 2019 regarding Trevino’s case.

Throughout the case, Trevino’s attorneys have argued that Grand Prairie police and Dallas County failed to conduct a "real" child sex trafficking investigation, insisting that police hastily arrested and charged their client.

But David Finn and Lee Bright, Baldenegro's and Martinez’s respective attorneys, have called the trafficking claims a ruse from the beginning. Instead, they claim Trevino was “intimately involved” in planning the robbery. Bright called the Texas Supreme Court filing "a fart in a stiff wind."

Bright says he understands what Trevino's attorneys are trying to do, but he doesn't expect it to be successful. "They're lawyering," he said. "They're making their argument. That's fine. I don't see it going anywhere."
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn