Should a sex trafficking defense apply in a homicide case?

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — One night in June 2018, 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer put a .38 caliber pistol in his briefcase and took an Uber from Milwaukee to Kenosha.

She walked into Randall Volar’s house. She had met Volar on a sex trafficking website, and over the past year he had sexually assaulted her and sold her into prostitution, according to court documents.

FILE – Chrystul Kizer sits in the Kenosha County Courthouse Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. The Wisconsin Supreme Court must decide whether Kizer, who killed a man, can find refuge in a state law that absolves victims of sex trafficking of their crimes. Kenosha prosecutors charged Chrystul Kizer in 2018 with homicide in the death of Randall Volar. A circuit judge rejected Kizer’s attempt to use a 2008 Wisconsin law that absolves sex trafficking victims of crimes committed while trafficked, saying it would be absurd to extend it to the homicide. (Paul Williams/The Kenosha News via AP, File)

Kizer would later tell detectives that 34-year-old Volar tried to touch her. She pulled out her gun, told him to sit in a chair, and shot him in the head. She then burned down her house and stole her BMW, according to court documents.

What looks like a clear case of felony homicide could actually be legal under a Wisconsin law that absolves sex trafficking victims of trafficking-related crimes. The state Supreme Court is set to decide whether Kizer can argue that immunity extends to murder in a case that could help define the scope of immunity for sex trafficking victims in dozens of states across the country.

Kizer, now 21, wants to argue at trial that her actions were justified under then-government law. Jim Doyle signed in 2008 that absolves sex trafficking victims of “any offense committed as a direct result” of trafficking. But a Kenosha County judge ruled Kizer couldn’t make that argument, saying expanding the law to cover homicides would be absurd.

Anti-violence groups have flocked to Kizer’s defense, arguing in legal briefs that victims of trafficking feel trapped and may feel they need to take matters into their own hands.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. The high court is not being asked to decide whether Kizer is guilty, only whether she can argue at trial that the law shields her from criminal liability. The ruling will not legally bind other states with similar immunity laws for victims of trafficking. But it could create a basis for prosecution and defense strategies in similar cases and affect how victims respond to abuse, legal experts said.

“If we live in a civilized society, it begs the question, are we going to grant immunity to people who are sexually abused to kill their abusers?” said Julius Kim, defense attorney and former Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney. “The implications can be devastating. Attorneys general across the country will be paying attention to see how this plays out. »

Nearly 40 states have passed laws in the past decade that offer victims of sex trafficking some level of criminal immunity, according to Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides legal assistance to low-income people. The laws came as lawmakers began to realize that traffickers exploited their victims and that states needed to prioritize rehabilitation and relief over punishment.

The extent of immunity varies by state. California, Kentucky, Montana and North Dakota, for example, extend immunity to crimes unrelated to prostitution, according to a brief from the Harvard Law School Gender Justice Clinic and 12 other anti-violence groups filed in favor of Kizer.

Other states limit immunity to offenses related to prostitution, according to the coalition. Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming impose no limits on immunity, but defendants must show that the crimes were related to trafficking.

Kizer’s attorneys allege in court documents that Kenosha police suspected Volar of trafficking children for sex months before he was killed. Lawyers claim he filmed himself sexually abusing numerous children. Police arrested Volar in February 2018 and seized evidence of sexual assault and child pornography from his home, but later released him and no charges were filed, according to filings.

Her lawyers went on to say that she was 16 when she met Volar. Kizer told The Washington Post in a 2019 interview from prison that she met Volar on Backpage.com, a website known to facilitate sex trafficking that the federal government has since shut down. She said she needed money for snacks and school. Volar sexually assaulted her and trafficked her through the website to others, she told the Post.

FILE – This reservation photo provided by the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department taken February 22, 2018 shows Randall Volar. (Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department)

According to the criminal complaint, Volar paid for an Uber to bring Kizer from Milwaukee to his Kenosha home in June 2018. The house caught fire that night. Police discovered Volar’s body slumped on a chair in the house. He had been shot and his BMW was missing.

Kizer told detectives she had a gun for protection. She said she was tired of Volar touching her and shooting her because a tote was blocking the door and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to leave, according to the complaint. When asked about the fire, Kizer said she watched the TV show “Criminal Minds” and decided to start the fire. She told detectives she jumped out of the window and drove off in a BMW.

Prosecutors charged her with first-degree intentional homicide, arson, auto theft and unlawful possession of a firearm. She would face a mandatory life sentence if convicted on the count of homicide.

Kizer spent two years in prison before being released in June 2020 after community groups lifted her $400,000 bond.

His attorneys planned to invoke the Sex Trafficking Immunity Act at trial, but Kenosha County Circuit Judge David Wilk refused to allow it, saying the immunity only extends to charges related to trafficking, such as withholding someone, extortion, sexual acts or slave labor.

Kizer’s attorney, public defender Katie York, persuaded a state appeals court to overturn Wilk’s decision last June. This court concluded that the immunity applies to any offense resulting directly from trafficking.

The state Department of Justice appealed to the state Supreme Court. Assistant Attorney General Timothy Barber argued in briefs that the shooting was not a direct result of trafficking, as it was premeditated. The day before Volar’s murder, Kizer texted a friend saying “I’m going to buy a BMW” and told her boyfriend she intended to shoot Volar, the prosecutor said. Kizer’s argument that she shot Volar to escape a sexual assault does not hold water since she shot him while he was sitting in a chair, Barber added.

“Kizer is asking this Court to interpret (the Immunity Act) in a way that creates a broader defense based on trafficking status than someone might assert in any other self-defense context,” wrote Barber.

York declined to comment for this story. But she argued in briefs that Wilk’s interpretation of the immunity laws undermined the law’s purpose and that Kizer should be allowed to argue his case at trial.

Kate Mogulescu, an associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in sex trafficking laws and consulted by one of the parties who filed briefs supporting Kizer, said in a phone interview that he should be easy for the Supreme Court to let a jury consider the background surrounding Volar’s death.

“Somehow when it’s a trafficked person trying to provide additional information and context about what happened in their case, shouldn’t that be allowed?” It makes no sense,” Mogulescu said.

About Jessica J. Bass

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