Opinion: She killed her rapist and must pay $150,000 in restitution. Could it happen in Utah?
Pieper Lewis, a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim, faced 20 years in prison and is now on parole with a $150,000 restitution fee for killing her rapist
In 2020, Pieper Lewis was 15 years old and the victim of sex trafficking. Her trafficker, who has not been charged with any crime, forced her to go with 37-year old Zachary Brooks, who she said raped her repeatedly over several weeks. On the morning of June 1, 2020, Lewis took a knife from the bedside table and killed Brooks.
She was charged with first-degree murder.
Last week, the now-17-year-old was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter and willful injury. She faced 20 years in prison, but, after already serving two years in juvenile detention, the judge ruled that she receive five years of probation. Judge David Porter also warned her from the bench that if she violated any of the terms of her probation, she could still be sent to prison.
Lewis was also ordered to pay $150,000 to Brooks’ estate. Iowa, where Lewis was sentenced, has mandatory financial restitution when a felony is committed, with no exceptions, said the judge.
Outrage has been growing across the country, as many think she should never have been charged.
Kelly Marie Meek of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault said, “I don’t think that justice was served.” “Justice,” she said, “would have not seen Pieper Lewis spend any time behind bars.”
Marcela Howell, who leads the nonprofit advocacy group In Our Own Voice, said in a statement “A Black teenager was trafficked and raped — those facts are not disputed — yet the American criminal legal system chose to prosecute, convict and persecute her for escaping her captor.”
A former math teacher of Lewis, Leland Schipper, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $150,000. By Tuesday, the campaign had raised over $556,000 from 15,600+ donors, most of them small dollar donors. Over 800 donors left messages of support and outrage. Jim Clark donated $5 and wrote “You are brave and did the right thing, now get out of the Midwest the second you can.”
Lewis is not the only teenage victim who has been convicted of killing an abuser.
Sara Kruzan was 11 when she was first trafficked in California. At 16, she shot and killed her pimp. At 17, she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sixteen years later, then California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted Kruzan’s sentence on his final day in office and she was released on parole. Just last month, she received a full pardon.
Cyntoia Brown was 16 when she killed her rapist in Tennessee. She was sentenced to life in prison, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are not constitutional. She served for 15 years before then-Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency and she was released.
Chrystul Kizer, who was 17 when she killed her abuser, a known child sex abuse offender, in 2018, is still involved in legal proceedings that could result in a life sentence for her.
The Lewis case and others like it beg the question: “Could it happen in Utah?”
According to current law, probably not. The section of code that covers self-defense specifically spells out that an individual is justified in using force against another person if they reasonably believe they are in danger from, among other things, the “rape of a child,” “sexual abuse of a child” and “aggravated sexual abuse of a child.” That same section specifies that in determining “imminence or reasonableness” of the self-defense, the legal system may consider the nature of the danger, the immediacy of the danger, the other individual’s prior violent acts, patterns of abuse and any other relevant factors.
Additionally, Utah has laws against the trafficking of children (or adults) for purposes of sexual exploitation and has a “safe harbor” law on the books. Safe harbor laws explicitly view minors as victims of exploitation and/or trafficking and redirect those minors away from the justice system and into systems like the Division of Child and Family Services.
Iowa has no such “safe harbor” law.
Laurieann Thorpe, executive director at Prevent Child Abuse Utah said: “At Prevent Child Abuse Utah, we teach that child abuse is NEVER the child’s fault. It is also not a child’s responsibility to get out of an abusive situation. The broad community that voted with their funds about justice in the Pieper Lewis case showed that the responsibility to protect children belongs to adults. We are grateful for laws in Utah that protect children and put accountability where it belongs.”
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.