victim for fighting back.

Posted September 30, 2022 by Andrew Thompson

"For Pieper Lewis, that simple decision to fight back cost her two years in a juvenile detention center, five years of GPS tracking, and $150,000."

When you get pushed, you push back. When someone attacks you, you know that you have the right to defend yourself without anyone telling you that you do. For Pieper Lewis, that simple decision to fight back cost her two years in a juvenile detention center, five years of GPS tracking, and $150,000.[1] Ms. Lewis was 15 years old and homeless when Zachary Brooks “raped her multiple times” at knifepoint.[2] Yet, for Ms. Lewis, this was not a one-time occurrence. Instead, it was something she experienced numerous times from several men while she was held against her will by Christopher Brown.[3] Despite the horror of Ms. Lewis’s experience, whether the rape happened was never at issue, only whether Brooks or Brown was actively a threat to Ms. Lewis.[4]To much of the public, the news of a human trafficking survivor being prosecuted chafes against our collective understanding of justice. Aside from personal feeling, these values are embodied in the core of legal doctrines such as self-defense [5], defense of habitation[6], and in some cases, safe harbor statutes that protect human trafficking victims from criminal liability.[7] So it is natural to wonder why these same principles that exist to protect victims and potential victims were not effective in Ms. Lewis’s case.

First, there are some fact-specific reasons. Ms. Lewis pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and willful injury.[8] The Iowa statute prohibiting willful injury provides that “[a]ny person who does an act which is not justified and which is intended to cause serious injury to another.”[9] The critical element is that the “defendant acted without justification.”[10] Pleading guilty to willful injury necessarily accepts there was no justification for the suspect’s action. Why someone pleads guilty can range from accepting responsibility to avoiding risky trials.[11] In Ms. Lewis’s case, that nightmare scenario at sentencing was 20 years in prison, older than she is now.[12] By accepting guilt through a plea deal, justifying one’s actions under the self-defense doctrine is out of reach.

Further, prosecutors argued that Ms. Lewis attacked the person raping her while he was sleeping, which falls outside of self-defense because she was not under immediate threat.[13] Yet, this highlights another question. Should the punishment occur if the victim has been under threat, will likely be under threat again, but is not actively being threatened? Whether a human trafficking victim should be punished for attacking her rapist and trafficker while the rapist is holding the victim is not an easy question. In Iowa, self-defense is applicable when a “person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to defend oneself or another from any actual or imminent use of unlawful force” and the defender is only allowed to use reasonable force.[14] The easiest case to imagine self-defense is when someone attacks another person, and the victim responds to defend themselves. Since the law only authorizes reasonable force[15] in response, the law has to answer what is a reasonable response to rape?

Lethal force should be justified in Ms. Lewis’s case, and in other cases of rape. The heart of whether lethal force is justified is whether the retaliation is with reasonable force. Some legal writers consider that under the circumstance of rape even a lethal response is reasonable.[16] Federal law allows for flexibility based on the peril of the situation as the victim perceived it when determining if the force was reasonable.[17] Even with this flexibility, the analysis is supposed to be objective.[18] This is where the objective analysis falls apart. The law asks the fact finder to put themselves in the accused’s shoes and consider what a reasonable person would do under the same circumstance and if the person perceived a deadly threat.[19] Usually, only a deadly threat justifies a deadly response.[20] Identifying a threat of sexual violence may be difficult for jurors who are tasked with considering the peril a victim feels when they have not experienced something similar. This is further complicated when a juror has to put themselves in the victim’s shoes in the heat of the moment to determine if they feared a lethal threat, especially if they have never been in that circumstance. 28.3 million people in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape, and each experience is intensely unique.[21] There is no way for a factfinder to experience what a victim has experienced, doubly so if they have not experienced it themselves. Asking a jury to do just that assumes structural unfairness even for cases that never see the inside of a courtroom.

The events of Ms. Lewis’s trial, both before and after, are unsettling to say the least. Punishing a victim is never something that should be done without thought especially when the victim has suffered as much as Ms. Lewis has. While taking a plea may have resulted in a better outcome for Ms. Lewis, the structure of law in the courtroom impacts the negotiations that go on outside the courtroom. Allowing self-defense to be used in a trial means that there is a much more robust case for other trafficking victims in plea negotiations. The case of Ms. Lewis could have been different if the law better-protected victims of rape and human trafficking.                          

[1] Patrick Reilly, Teen Trafficking Victim Ordered to Pay $150K in Restitution to Family of Rapist She Killed, N.Y. Post, (Sept. 14, 2022).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See e.g., People v. Goetz, 68 N.Y.2d 96 (1986).

[6] State v. Bryant, 705 S.E.2d 465, 472 (S.C. Ct. App. 2010).

[7] N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 447-a (Consol.).

[8] See Reilly, supra note 1.

[9] Iowa Code § 708.4.

[10] Id.

[11] Allison D. Redlich et al., The Psychology of Defendant Plea Decision Making, 72 Am. Psych. 339, 341–42 (2017).

[12] See Reilly, supra note 1.

[13] Id.

[14] Iowa Code § 704.3.

[15] See Iowa Code § 704.3.

[16] Don B. Kates Jr. & Nancy Jean Engberg, Deadly Force Self-Defense Against Rape, 15 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 873, 874 (1982).

[17] Id. at 877­­—8.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 877.

[20] Id.

[21] Sharon G. Smith et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release 2 (2018).

Friday, September 30, 2022