Reviews | Wisconsin has a chance to stand up for victims of sex trafficking. He must.

Comment

Sara Kruzan, Stoneleigh Fellow of Human Rights for Kids, is the author of “I Cried to Dream Again: Trafficking, Murder, and Deliverance – A Memoir”.

In 2008, Wisconsin lawmakers wisely attempted to protect victims of child sex trafficking by passing a law stating that victims who commit crimes as a “direct result” of trafficking can use it as a defense against a conviction. But a recent murder case against a 16-year-old victim who killed her attacker raises questions about whether victims can access these protections in practice.

Wisconsin resident Chrystul Kizer was 16 when she was repeatedly sexually abused and trafficked by a child predator. Her attacker even filmed the times he raped her. She wasn’t his only victim. He was arrested and later released without bail, although police discovered he was sexually abusing a dozen underage black girls in the area.

Like too many black and brown girls in the United States, Chrystul and the other victims have been groomed, exploited, over-sexualized and sexually assaulted on numerous occasions, not only by their abuser but also by other adult men. It is through this system of physical and sexual violence that young girls like Chrystul are indoctrinated into modern-day slavery.

At 17, Chrystul killed her attacker. She was later prosecuted for first degree murder, despite the 2008 law which sought to protect children in her position. The trial judge did not allow Chrystul’s attorneys to pursue the defense granted to him under state law, stating that he believed it was not meant to extend to violent crimes.

Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the trial judge and ruled that Chrystul, who faces a mandatory life sentence, should at least have been able to argue that the 2008 law protected her from prosecution. During oral arguments in the case, judges chastised the attorney representing the state for downplaying the abuse suffered by Chrystul, with Judge Jill J. Karofsky noting that “the constitution says we must treat victims with dignity and respect. And part of that is acknowledging what really happened to them, and Ms. Kizer here was undeniably a victim of human trafficking.

Chrystul’s case is personal to me because her ordeal, in many ways, mirrors mine. In the mid-1990s, I was also sexually abused by an adult. I was an 11 year old child when I was approached by a man who I thought was safe. He exploited my innocence, and he set in motion a two-year grooming process defined by repeated physical, psychological and sexual abuse. When I was 13, he started sex trafficking me.

Three years later, I shot and killed my attacker as he attempted to rape me again in a hotel room. I was only 16 years old. I was arrested and prosecuted, and at 17, I had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole plus four years. I was hurt by an abusive system, incarcerated for almost 20 years and relegated to the shadow of our society.

Three different California governors finally saw the injustice of my case and acted to make things right. Govt. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown reduced my sentence and on July 1 Governor Gavin Newsom granted me a full pardon. Other governors, such as the former Bill Haslam, Governor of Tennessee and Ohio Governor Mike DeWinefollowed this example by defending human trafficking victims when justice has not done so.

While I am grateful for their actions, I should never have been prosecuted in the first place, let alone tried as an adult. In Chrystul’s case, Wisconsin officials have an opportunity to right that wrong so that, unlike me, Chrystul does not spend years in prison.

That’s why Kenosha County District Attorney Michael D. Graveley is expected to drop the charges against Chrystul. She’s a child victim, not a criminal. She was a child when she was repeatedly abused, and she was still a child when she took the actions that led to her wrongful prosecution. The state is causing further trauma to Chrystul, when she should be receiving care and services for what happened to her.

If the prosecutor refuses to do the right thing, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers should follow the example of other governors and defend Chrystul at the first opportunity.

One of the most important mandates of our justice system is to protect our most vulnerable. Chrystul’s story shows a failure of that mandate and is an example of state-sponsored human rights abuse against a child. She has suffered enough. Instead of prosecuting her, the best use of Crown resources would be to fix the broken system that allowed her abuser to be left on the streets and exploit children. If he had been kept off the streets, Chrystul would never have been in this situation to begin with.

Their state Supreme Court has granted Wisconsin leaders the opportunity to do the right thing. By dropping charges against Chrystul, prosecutors can send the message that the lives of exploited black girls and victims of child sex trafficking matter to them.