Nation/World

Teen sex trafficking victim wins key Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in killing of her abuser

In a groundbreaking decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a teenager who killed her sexual abuser may have the chance to be acquitted of all charges.

The decision is a major win for Chrystul Kizer, now 22, a Black woman who is facing life in prison for the crimes she committed at 17, and for anti-trafficking advocates who have spent decades pushing for laws to protect victims like her.

Kizer does not deny killing 34-year-old Randall Phillip Volar III in 2018. For years, she has been fighting for the opportunity to show evidence to a judge, and eventually a jury, that her actions were the “direct result” of the exploitation and abuse Volar subjected her to. She hoped to employ a never-before-used Wisconsin law that was designed to offer legal protection to some victims of trafficking, who are often coerced or cornered into committing crimes while they are being exploited.

The law states that such victims have an affirmative defense for “any offense committed as a direct result” of trafficking. But prosecutors and Kizer’s attorneys have been at odds over what “direct result” really means.

They’ve argued, too, about whether the law would provide Kizer with a “complete defense” to the charges, meaning she could be completely acquitted, or whether her charge should only be lessened from first-degree homicide to second-degree - meaning she would still face up to 60 years in prison.

The court, in a 4-3 ruling, settled the matter, affirming a lower court’s decision and siding with Kizer on both issues.

“We hold that [the law] is a complete defense to a charge of first-degree intentional homicide,” wrote Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet.

Now, Kizer’s case, which has been stalled for years, can continue.

If a judge agrees there is “some evidence” her crimes were a “direct result” of trafficking, she will be able to present the same argument to a jury.

If the jury sides with her, she could be acquitted of some or all the charges against her.

“Chrystul Kizer deserves a chance to present her defense and today’s decision will allow her to do that,” said Colleen Marion, one of Kizer’s public defenders, in a statement Wednesday. “While the legal process on this matter is far from over, we, along with Chrystul and her family, believe the decision today affirms the legal rights provided by Wisconsin statute to victims of sex trafficking facing criminal charges.”

The news is a triumph for those who have rallied around Kizer. There are more than 1.5 million signatures on a Change.org petition asking all charges against her to be dropped. Celebrities and high-profile sex trafficking survivors, including authors Cyntoia Brown-Long and Sara Kruzan, have argued that Kizer needs therapy, not prison time. Anti-sex trafficking advocates and attorneys, including those who have represented victims of financier Jeffrey Epstein, believe Kizer’s case is a clear example of the extremes that trafficking victims sometimes go to to survive.

Kizer was first arrested in 2018, after Kenosha police found a 34-year-old White man shot in the head twice and his house set on fire. Investigators already knew who Volar was. At the time, records show, he was under investigation for sexually abusing another Black child. Police had recently found “hundreds” of videos of child sexual abuse in his home during a raid, including videos he’d filmed of his own abuse of Black girls.

One of those girls, records show, was Kizer.

Kizer told The Washington Post in 2019 that Volar paid her in cash, dinners and gifts. Under Wisconsin and federal law, this meets the definition of child sex trafficking, because Volar exchanged something of value for sex. Regardless of the circumstances, minors cannot legally consent to being involved in commercial sex.

But while Volar was under investigation by Kenosha police, they allowed him to remain free for months. One night in June, he paid for Kizer to take an Uber to his house. Kizer, who has not yet been able to present evidence in court, told police that she was tired of Volar touching her, and that he was on top of her on the ground when she went for the gun that she brought in her purse. In interviews with The Post, she said Volar was trying to rip her jeans off. She said she lit his house on fire and fled in his car because she was panicked.

Despite the video evidence that Volar was sexually abusing Kizer, prosecutors chose to file the maximum possible charge against her: first degree intentional homicide, which carries an automatic life sentence in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which argued the state’s position before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in March, did not respond to requests for comment.

In previous hearings, state prosecutors have argued that evidence shows Kizer planned the murder, lied about it, and was only trying to steal Volar’s BMW.

The affirmative defense law, Assistant Attorney General Timothy Barber argued in March, “is not a license for a victim to kill a trafficker.”

Kizer remained in jail for two years before supporters paid her $400,000 bail in the summer of 2020 using bond funds raised following the murder of George Floyd. She received even more attention in 2021, after a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse, a White teenager, in the same county where Kizer is charged. Rittenhouse argued he was acting in self defense when he killed two people at a protest in 2020. Kizer, too, has argued she was acting in self defense.

But while people around the world have learned her story, her potential fate has remained the same as the appeals process dragged on.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision provides a clear avenue for what she will have to prove in order to be afforded the protection of the affirmative defense law.

The justices defined what “direct result” should mean in the eyes of the law: “if there is a logical, causal connection between the offense and the trafficking such that the offense is not the result, in significant part, of other events, circumstances, or considerations apart from the trafficking violation.”

This interpretation is even broader than the appeals court’s definition, which ruled that Kizer would have to prove that her crimes were a “logical and foreseeable consequence” of being trafficked. Instead, the state high court acknowledged the unique, sustained trauma experienced by victims of trafficking.

“Unlike many crimes, which occur at discrete points in time, human trafficking can trap victims in a cycle of seemingly inescapable abuse that can continue for months or even years,” the majority opinion stated. For that reason, the justices wrote, Kizer will only have to prove that there is a “necessary logical connection” between her crimes and the trafficking she experienced, even if there are “other factors at play.”

Legal experts noted that even the three dissenting justices, all of whom are conservative, didn’t seem to take issue with the majority opinion’s definition of “direct result.” Instead, they argued that the statute should not provide a “complete defense” to homicide.

But in a rare move, Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley broke from her fellow conservatives to side with the court’s liberal bloc. During oral arguments, Bradley had been vocal about the severity of the victimization Kizer experienced.

“They found evidence that this 34-year-old man was paying girls for sex, using them to make child pornography, prostituting them out to other men,” Bradley said in March.

With Bradley on their side, the justices made it clear what the ruling means for Kizer - and for other victims of trafficking charged with crimes that may not be as serious as murder. The decision creates a pathway for those victims to show the courts how their exploitation was a factor in what they did.

“There’s something discouraging and disheartening to say this young woman just wants to explain the circumstances of her victimization that led to this awful event, and she isn’t able to do so?” said Caitlin Noonan, of Legal Action Wisconsin. “Now, the court agrees that Chrystul should have the opportunity to present her story. That’s all she’s been asking for since the beginning.”

The decision is likely to have consequences far beyond Wisconsin.

The majority of states have some version of laws to protect trafficking victims who are charged with crimes. But most states name specific crimes for which the protection applies. Victims in many states can only seek protection only from being convicted of prostitution. Other states go broader, naming crimes that trafficking victims are often commanded to commit by their abusers, such as carrying drugs or committing fraud.

The anti-trafficking movement has pushed for laws that give victims far more leeway, pointing to the severe psychological and physical trauma that victims endure - and the way it alters their brain chemistry and decision making.

“For far too long, there’s been this tragic pattern of trafficking victims being punished rather than protected by the legal system,” said Lindsey Ruff, an attorney who represented multiple groups in a brief supporting Kizer. “This statute and this case can be a model to other states who want to provide these kinds of broad protections to trafficking victims.”

The Wisconsin ruling could also bolster attempts to pass a proposed federal law, named after Kruzan, that would allow judges more discretion when handling the cases of child trafficking victims.

In the meantime, Kizer’s case could finally come to a resolution. Her next court hearing is scheduled for September.

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