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Chrystul Kizer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and a watershed sex-trafficking case

The state’s justices will decide whether a law designed to protect child sex-trafficking victims can be used in a homicide case

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill J. Karofsky on March 1 accused Assistant Attorney General Timothy M. Barber of minimizing the abuse Chrystul Kizer endured. (Video: Wiseye.org)

MADISON, Wis. — In a marble-walled courtroom in Wisconsin this week, the state’s Supreme Court justices found themselves debating a case about a killing that occurred nearly four years ago. Again and again when discussing what happened, the justices spoke of someone they said was clearly a “victim.” But they were not talking about the man who died.

They were talking about the girl who killed him.

“Why,” asked Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, “isn’t Ms. Kizer entitled to present her defense that she did this because she was being trafficked?”

The answer will determine what happens next to Chrystul Kizer, a 21-year-old facing life in prison if convicted of murder for killing her sexual abuser when she was 17. Her case has been in limbo for years, as appeals courts have debated whether she should have access to a never-before-used law that was designed to protect victims of sex trafficking from being punished for crimes they committed that were a “direct result” of being trafficked.

Read The Washington Post’s investigation into the case of Chrystul Kizer

State prosecutors and Kizer’s attorneys vehemently disagree about what “direct result” really means — and whether the law, called the affirmative defense, allows for someone to be acquitted of a charge as serious as first-degree intentional homicide.

In the courtroom and across the country, advocates in the anti-trafficking movement were analyzing the justices’ every word. They see the case as a critical test of how far the criminal justice system has come in understanding the unique psychological and physical traumas endured by victims who are coerced into commercial sex or are too young to consent to being sold.

“This is a real opportunity for the interpretation and application of the law to protect someone like Chrystul, who is by no means the first or last victim who could find herself in these circumstances,” said attorney Lindsey Ruff, whose firm co-wrote a brief in the case and represents women trafficked by financier Jeffrey Epstein.

As the Epstein case did, Kizer’s circumstances have brought international attention to the realities of sex trafficking, highlighting the way that vulnerable people can be groomed into abusive relationships. After being championed by celebrities and the organizers of the #MeToo movement, Kizer’s case received renewed attention during the uprising that followed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Her supporters paid her $400,000 bond, allowing her to await trial at home in Milwaukee after two years in jail.

In 2021, her picture went viral again as social media users compared her to Kyle Rittenhouse, a White teenager who was acquitted of all charges after he claimed he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot two protesters in the same county, Kenosha, where Kizer is charged. Today, there are nearly 1.5 million signatures on a Change.org petition calling for the charges against her to be dropped.

But even as Kizer has become a symbol to many, her potential fate has remained the same. She could still spend the rest of her life in prison for the night in 2018 when she admitted to shooting Randall P. Volar twice in the head, lighting his house on fire and fleeing in his car. She is still living with the traumatic effects of the exploitation she experienced.

A 2019 Washington Post investigation showed that the Kenosha Police Department knew Volar was abusing underage Black girls for nearly three months before his death. After another Black girl fled from his home, a raid turned up hundreds of videos of child sexual abuse in his possession, including videos he had made of Kizer and girls who appeared to be as young as 12. But while the investigation continued, police and prosecutors allowed Volar to remain free.

“If they had done something, he would still be alive today,” said Devore Taylor, Kizer’s mother. “Instead, here we are, four years later, still trying to get through the garbage.”

Kizer herself was not in court Tuesday as the state’s seven justices, all of whom are White and six of whom are women, listened to the attorneys debate the meaning of the affirmative defense law for trafficking victims.

“It is not a license for a victim to kill a trafficker,” said Assistant Attorney General Timothy M. Barber. The law, he said, was never intended for “escape or revenge.”

The state has long contended that Kizer’s actions were planned, pointing to messages she sent in the days leading up to the crime and the fact that she brought a gun to Volar’s house and downloaded a police scanner app on her phone.

Kizer has not yet had the chance to present evidence contradicting this narrative in court but told police after her arrest 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. In interviews with The Washington Post in 2019, Kizer said Volar was trying to rip her jeans off.

During the hour-long arguments, multiple justices indicated that while they believe questions of premeditation and motive should be left to a jury, the months of exploitation Kizer experienced before the crime would be a major factor in their decision about the defense she should be allowed to present. When Barber described Kizer’s story as alleging that Volar had touched her leg, Justice Jill J. Karofsky cut him off.

“Mr. Barber, I’m sorry, but he did so much — come on,” Karofsky scolded. “The constitution says that we need to treat victims with dignity and respect. And part of that is acknowledging what actually happened to them, and Ms. Kizer undeniably here was a victim of human trafficking.”

For the justices, the issue appeared to be bipartisan: Karofsky, a liberal known for her passion for victim’s rights, was echoed by Justice Rebecca Bradley, a staunch conservative. She pointed to the police’s decision to let Volar go free after his abuse of another girl was discovered.

“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.

Consideration of trauma was not the only area in which the court, which has a 4-to-3 conservative majority, seemed poised to break from its traditional voting blocs.

The justices who model themselves after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — known for emphasizing the “plain text” of a law — repeatedly pointed to the broadness of Wisconsin’s affirmative defense.

Attorney Katie York discussed Wisconsin's affirmative defense law with Justice Patience D. Roggensack during oral arguments in Chrystul Kizer's case on March 1. (Video: Wiseye.org)

Unlike in many states, where similar laws specify which criminal acts victims of trafficking can use the defense for, Wisconsin’s law does not.

It says: “A victim of a violation of [trafficking] has an affirmative defense for any offense committed as a direct result of the violation of [trafficking] without regard to whether anyone was prosecuted or convicted for the violation of [trafficking].”

Katie York, a public defender representing Kizer, argued this means that as long as Kizer can prove to a jury that her actions were a direct result of the trafficking she experienced, she could be acquitted. Four justices asked questions suggesting they believe the “plain text” reading supported York’s stance.

But the prosecution said the law applies only to crimes that were a “direct result” of the actions of a trafficker, such as a victim being ordered to commit a crime. Kizer, Barber said, should have to rely on the standard self-defense laws that would require her to prove she was in imminent threat of great bodily harm.

Even if Barber loses on that front, he could win on another: Instead of Kizer’s being acquitted of first-degree homicide, he argued, her charge should be only mitigated, meaning reduced from first-degree to second-degree. If his argument is successful, Kizer could no longer receive a life sentence, but she could still face up to 60 years in prison if convicted. Some justices seemed open to that argument.

It will probably be two to four months before they release their written decision, which is expected to include a set of jury instructions that will define what kinds of crimes can be considered a “direct result” of trafficking.

If Kizer’s public defenders believe that her circumstances meet that definition, they will present their case to a circuit court judge. If the judge agrees that there is “some evidence” her crimes fit, then the case could go before a jury. Kizer’s team could present evidence of what she endured, expert testimony on how trauma affects the brains of children and explanations for each act she committed.

That opportunity would be a significant shift from previous cases in which child sex-trafficking victims were charged in the deaths of their abusers. In most, evidence about the trafficking they experienced was ruled inadmissible or objected to as defaming the deceased. As a result, most victims with stories similar to Kizer’s have been painted as “child prostitutes” or juvenile delinquents making up stories to cover their tracks. Most have been convicted or taken plea deals for lengthy sentences.

But as the public has come to better understand the traumatic impact of this kind of abuse, convicted trafficking survivors, including Sara Kruzan, Cyntoia Brown and Alexis Martin, have been released from prison.

To them, Kizer’s case is a chance for the world to understand why years of manipulation and repeated rape can make victims feel they have no choice but to resort to violence.

“Her actions are a strong reactive symptom of the disease imposed on her that was never healed from the beginning,” said Kruzan, who is pushing for a federal law similar to the affirmative defense.

If Kizer does go to trial, the attorneys will be choosing jurors from the same community where the Rittenhouse case unfolded. And though the legal defenses will be different, advocates say the national attention on the case and the potential for further unrest could add pressure on the state to offer Kizer a plea deal instead of going to trial.

For Kizer and her family, the many unknowns translate only to more waiting.

Since walking out of jail with a trash bag full of notes from her supporters, Kizer has been working jobs in fast food, restaurants and temp agencies. Taylor, her mother, is going to school to get a degree in criminal justice, hoping to better understand the system that is prosecuting her daughter.

Taylor said their family is appreciating the moments of normalcy Kizer gets to have, like jumping on trampolines at her sister’s birthday party and walking her stepbrother to school.

She will spend the next few months waiting for a call from her lawyers with news of the justices’ decision.

“Chrystul deserves her day in court, where she can present a full and fair defense,” her legal team said in a statement.

The state’s prosecutors declined to comment.

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