Award Ascend Justice

Kirkland Receives 2024 Champion of Justice Award for Representation of Gender Violence Survivor

Ascend Justice named Kirkland & Ellis a “2024 Champion of Justice” award winner at the organization’s annual Celebration of Courage event on June 13. A team of Kirkland attorneys accepted the award for their pro bono efforts on behalf of traffic survivor and mother of five Crystal Martinez.

At the age of 15, Crystal was coerced into participating in a sex trafficking ring in Chicago, where she was forced into prostitution and routinely assaulted. She eventually escaped and worked hard to rebuild her life, but her progress stalled in May 2019, when she saw a man assaulting a woman on the street. She tried to intervene, but when the man charged at her, she used her licensed firearm to protect herself, shooting and wounding the assailant. She was pressured into pleading guilty to aggravated battery, despite her well-founded claim of self‑defense, and received an eight-year sentence.

Kirkland and Ascend Justice took on the case in 2022, requesting a resentencing to the statutory minimum of six years. The team applied a recently passed Illinois statute allowing defendants to petition for resentencing if a history of domestic violence relates to the crime at issue, but that evidence wasn’t introduced during the initial sentencing. In late 2023, Kirkland submitted a 354‑page sentencing memorandum filled with new evidence, including an expert’s report, affidavits, a dozen letters of support and more. The Kirkland team — including partners Michael Black, Zac Ciullo and Jenna Stupar, associates Maria Fay Karras, Kelly Meyer and Danielle O’Neal and paralegal Monse Martinez — presented their argument before a packed courtroom that December, and the judge granted the requested relief.

With credit for her time served, Crystal was released from prison on May 17, 2024, in time for her daughter’s graduation from junior high school. Crystal and her oldest daughter, Nevaeh Martinez, were also presented a Champion of Justice Award at the event in Chicago.

“Throughout their tireless efforts, the Pro Bono Team at Kirkland & Ellis consistently acted with unwavering passion and care, leaving an indelible mark on Crystal’s journey towards justice,” Ascend Justice said in a written statement. “Their collective dedication stands as a testament to the transformative power of legal advocacy in making a meaningful difference in the lives of those in need.”

Kirkland is committed to providing legal services without charge to those who cannot afford counsel, with the goal of improving clients’ lives, bettering communities and deepening attorneys’ professional experience. In 2023, Kirkland devoted nearly 150,000 hours to pro bono matters — some representing classes of individuals, some involving significant legal issues, and all important, sometimes life-altering, to the people and organizations represented.


Watch Ascend Justice’s video about the Crystal Martinez story.