Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post
|Chrystul Kizer, at a court hearing Nov. 15 , is accused of killing her alleged sex trafficker. (Photo: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin)|
KENOSHA - Metal cuffs strained against her ankles as she shuffled down the courthouse hallway. She passed her mother, who had grown used to seeing her teen daughter in a jail uniform. She passed the activists, who saw her as a victim of child sex trafficking.
She entered the courtroom, where she was facing life in prison on charges of murdering her alleged sex trafficker.
"The court calls 18CF643," said the judge at this November hearing. "State of Wisconsin versus Chrystul Kizer."
Chrystul looked up at him, then down at her hands. She sat between the public defenders assigned to her when she couldn't afford her own lawyer. Beside them was the district attorney, the lead prosecutor for Kenosha County, a lakefront community of about 169,000 people between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Both sides agreed to certain facts about what had brought them here:
When Chrystul was 16, she met a 33-year-old man named Randy Volar.
Volar had sex with Chrystul multiple times.
He filmed it.
She wasn't the only one — and in February 2018, police arrested Volar on charges including child sexual assault. But then, they released him without bail.
Volar, a white man, remained free for three months, even after police discovered evidence that he was abusing about a dozen underage black girls.
He remained free until Chrystul, then 17, went to his house one night in June and allegedly shot him in the head, twice. She lit his body on fire, police said, and fled in his car.
A few days later, she confessed. District Attorney Michael Graveley, whose office knew about the evidence against Volar but waited to prosecute him, charged Chrystul with arson and first-degree intentional homicide, an offense that carries a mandatory life sentence in Wisconsin.
Graveley says he believes Chrystul's crime was premeditated. The evidence, he argues, shows she planned to murder Volar so she could steal his BMW.
Chrystul, now 19, maintains she was defending herself. Speaking publicly from jail for the first time, she said that when she told Volar she didn't want to have sex that night, he pinned her to the floor.
"I didn't intentionally try to do this," she said.
Her case comes at a time when police and prosecutors across the country are reevaluating how victims of sex trafficking should be treated. This year, Tennessee released Cyntoia Brown, whose story went viral in the midst of the #MeToo movement. She went to prison at age 16 and served 15 years for killing a man who purchased her for sex.
Brown's story, along with the downfall of financier Jeffrey Epstein and singer R. Kelly, reveal what most child sex trafficking actually looks like in America: vulnerable kids, not kidnapped and held captive, not chained and smuggled across borders, but groomed by someone they trust and manipulated into believing they are the ones to blame for the abuse.
Under federal law, all children who are bought or sold for sex are trafficking victims, regardless of the circumstances. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have stopped charging minors with prostitution.
Most states also have a law that gives sex-trafficking victims an "affirmative defense." If they can prove at trial they committed a crime because they were being trafficked, they can be acquitted of certain charges against them.
Wisconsin is one of those states — and Chrystul wanted to use that law to defend her actions. Despite prosecutors' certainty that her crime was premeditated, her lawyer argues she still has a complete defense to the charges.
But the affirmative defense law has never been used in a homicide or any other violent crime. Not in Wisconsin and, as far as advocates know, not anywhere else.
At this hearing, the judge was going to decide whether it could be.
With handcuffs on her wrists, Chrystul pulled at the rosary around her neck. Behind her, the courtroom was filled with her supporters and with members of Volar's family.
"Your honor," her lawyer began, and Chrystul listened closely as the men debated what she deserved.