Pieper Lewis: Other cases of sex trafficking victims convicted or sentenced

Pieper Lewis, who killed her alleged rapist in 2020, received a deferred sentence from Polk County District Judge David Porter after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and malicious wounding.

Lewis is one of several teenagers, often of color, who have been convicted or convicted of killing their sex trafficker or abuser in the United States in recent years.

And in Tennessee, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man she paid to rape her as a 16-year-old trafficking victim. Now 32, Brown was granted parole in 2019 after spending half his life behind bars.
In response to Lewis’ sentencing, Brown — now a criminal justice reform advocate and author — told PBS Newshour, “It’s just a story that’s unfortunately become very popular.”

“He was a victim in this situation, not only will he have to serve time in a facility, but anything he does for the next five years could result in him having to serve 20 years. So he’s not. really free.”

Advocates such as KellyMarie Meek of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault told CNN, “Women of color who advocate for victims of sexual assault and trafficking have historically not been treated well by our legal system.”

“Legal systems punish rather than protect”

Iowa is not among dozens of so-called safe harbor states that offer legal protections to victims of human trafficking.

“There is a disproportionate number of black and brown people who are in our criminal justice system and who are incarcerated in our jails and prisons in Iowa,” Meek said. “It’s a lot more than you might expect based on people of color in Iowa. And so it’s hard to imagine that that didn’t have anything to do with it.”

The most recent data from the US National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 22,326 victims and survivors of trafficking in 2020. Of these, 14,597 were cases of sex trafficking and 1,048 were sex and labor trafficking, or forcing someone to work by fraud or force. Farm and domestic work is a common way of labor traffic, according to the telephone.

The average age of traffickers was 17 years old, and the number of elderly people identified by the phone dropped significantly. The sum of the young victims was equal to the number of 17-year-olds.

In his plea agreement, Lewis detailed the series of events that led to the murder. She described fleeing an abusive home environment and becoming homeless until she was taken in by an elderly man who she believes trafficked her and forced her to have sex with other men, including Brooks, for money… She described being assaulted. repeatedly, including when I was unconscious, saying, “I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks had raped me again and was overcome with rage.”

Lewis was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and voluntary injury. But the judge on Tuesday deferred those sentences, meaning his guilty plea could be expunged if he serves five years of probation in a residential facility.

The judge said restitution was mandatory under Iowa law. “This court has no jurisdiction other than to impose the $150,000 payable to Mr. Brooke’s estate.”

Meek said he understood the restitution ruling and that the judge had no discretion.

“It worked very badly in this case, but I’m not going to automatically swing the pendulum and say, we’re going to get rid of that,” he said.

As outrage over Lewis’ case grows, a GoFundMe campaign started by one of Lewis’ former teachers surpassed $388,000 as of Thursday afternoon. But rights activists say the cases reflect a broader trend of victims of sexual abuse and trafficking being punished rather than protected by the legal system.
Child Sex Trafficking: It's Probably Not What You Think

“I don’t think justice was done. I don’t think justice would have seen Pieper Lewis go behind bars,” Meek told CNN. “This is not the worst outcome that could have happened, but it is far from a good outcome, and it is certainly not justice.”

“The decision to prosecute Lewis and the subsequent sentence sends a clear message to black women, girls and people of all genders — the law will not protect you — and if you stand up for yourself, you will pay a heavy price,” Marcela Howell. The president and director of the nonprofit advocacy group In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda said in a statement after the ruling.

Experts like attorney Lindsey Ruff told CNN, “Too often, we see a tragic pattern where the criminal justice system punishes the victims of heinous crimes, rather than the actual perpetrators.”

Ruff, who represented several groups in a brief supporting Kizer, said the causes of human trafficking are complex and that addressing these problems requires complex solutions.

“Many victims of trafficking — especially child victims like Chrystul or Peiper — suffer serious psychological consequences from being trafficked, which can lead them to act in apparently abnormal ways,” he said. “They may cope in self-destructive ways such as drug use or violence, use self-help to defend themselves. These types of behaviors can lead to or risk contact with the criminal justice system. The causal link between victimization and criminality creates a cycle in which victims are punished for their trauma.” for reactions.”

Trauma is not understood

Meek also expressed concern about Lewis’ ability to handle the terms of his release due to the severity of his trauma.

“Five years [of] it’s the freedom from close supervision that worries me because I know that many of the trauma survivors’ ways of dealing with trauma are not well understood by non-traumatized people, which can sometimes lead to problematic behaviors. ,” he said.

It’s a sentiment Brown shares as a survivor advocate.

“We have a long way to go to educate people about what it’s like to be a victim of trafficking, the life they have to live, the things they have to turn to just to survive,” she said. PBS NewsHour. “Even in states where we have mechanisms for prosecutors, for judges to be lenient, to treat these people as young girls who have reacted from a place of trauma and need services, and sometimes to keep them from incarceration, the people involved in these cases don’t necessarily see that. ».

The issue is complex and experts like Ruff say the power dynamic between the victim and their abuser needs to be considered to avoid re-traumatizing victims by punishing them for protecting themselves.

“A constant physical and emotional power imbalance between a victim and their abuser can lead to learned helplessness, and the threat of serious injury is always present and always imminent,” Ruff said. “Abuse can erode a victim’s sense of safety to the point where they never feel safe, which can cause them to act out of fear or desperation when dealing with their abuser.”

In the US, children most vulnerable to sex trafficking are those living in poverty, often known to child protective services, in foster care, generally in unstable conditions, social workers and researchers say. Many have been sexually abused as children before becoming victims.

“Our data shows that people are exploited because traffickers know that there are certain groups of people who have no help, no accountability or no ability to seek justice,” said Robert Beiser, director of strategic initiatives. Polaris, who runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, previously told CNN in a sex-trafficking report. “And, if you exploit them, it’s much less likely that a problem will come as a trafficker or as a sex buyer.”

Trauma persists for victims of sex trafficking and for teenagers like Lewis at the intersection of being Black, being a girl, and growing up in unstable environments: the road to justice is difficult.

“Injustice and violence against black women and young girls are reproductive and racial justice crises, whether the harm is done by abusers, by police, or by the courts and the criminal justice system itself,” SisterSong Executive Director Monica Simpson told CNN.

“This is another example of how the system is failing our communities, and in fact, it allows Black women and girls to continue to be punished and punished.”

CNN’s Chuck Johnston, Nicquel Terry Ellis, Hannah Sarisohn, Theresa Waldrop, Tina Burnside and Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.