Iowa teen who killed her rapist ordered to pay $150,000 to man’s family

An Iowa court sentenced a teenage victim of sex trafficking to five years probation and ordered her to pay $150,000 to her abuser’s family. The case is underscoring a serious issue of justice where hundreds of victims of sexual abuse and trafficking have faced similar legal consequences. Human trafficking survivor and criminal justice reform advocate Cyntoia Brown-Long joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    An Iowa court has sentenced a teenage victim of sex trafficking to five years of probation and ordered her to pay $150,000 to her abuser's family.

    Pieper Lewis ran away from an unstable home at the age of 15. She was repeatedly abused by multiple men and fatally stabbed one of them in 2020. She pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter last year. Her case is again underscoring a serious issue of justice. Hundreds of victims of sexual abuse and trafficking have faced similar legal consequences and even decades in prison for killing their abusers.

    Joining me now is Cyntoia Brown-Long, herself a survivor of human trafficking. She was convicted of murdering one of her abusers when she was 16 and served 15 years of a life sentence before she was granted clemency in 2019. She's now a criminal justice reform advocate and author of "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System."

    Cyntoia Brown-Long, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    There are so many painful parallels between what you endured and what Pieper Lewis has endured, the abuse, the legal process that followed. I just have to ask, when you first heard her story, what did you think?

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long, Criminal Justice Reform Advocate:

    You know, it's just a story that has unfortunately become all too familiar, a child who was failed by agencies early on. She had an abusive home that she was running away from. She was on the streets.

    Someone took advantage of her, exploited her vulnerabilities, just her needing to survive. And whenever she woke up and decided that she wanted to fight back and she wanted to be free, she was subject to the justice system. So, unfortunately, that's become the norm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In this case, her charges were reduced from a first-degree murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.

    She had faced 20 years up to prison, as we just said, got five years in a residential correctional facility. How do you see this? Is this justice in this case?

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long:

    I would not call it a complete picture of justice.

    Obviously, it's a lot better than what many of us had to endure. I was sentenced to life in prison. Thankfully, my sentence was commuted. However, she's still going to have to go to a facility. She is a victim. Even though the prosecutors acknowledged that, that she was a victim in this situation, not only is she going to have to serve time in a facility, but, over the next five years, anything that she does can trigger her having to serve a 20-year sentence.

    So she's not truly free. And then there's a fact that she was ordered to pay $150,000 to the family of someone who did victimized her. So I wouldn't call it justice exactly. However, it is a lot better than what it could have been.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, that's really saying a lot. And we should point out too that the cases — how cases are handled really depends on which state you live in and where this is all unfolding.

    There was the Ohio case of Alexis Martin, who was convicted for killing her alleged trafficker back when she was 15. Her sentence was eventually commuted, but then a parole violation got her landed back in prison just this spring. In Wisconsin, there was the case of Chrystul Kizer, which we remember headlines about. She killed her abuser when she was just 17. She is still fighting in court years later to have evidence heard that her abuse is what led to her actions.

    What do all of these cases, Cyntoia, what do they tell us about how the laws look at children who are victims of sex trafficking?

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long:

    It tells us we have a long way to go in educating people what it's actually like for someone who's a victim of trafficking, the life that they have to live, the things that they have to resort to just to survive.

    It tells me that, even in states where we do have mechanisms in place for prosecutors, for judges to be lenient, to look at these individuals as young girls who reacted from a place of trauma and who are in need of services, and not being incarcerated, sometimes, the people who are involved in these cases don't necessarily see that.

    We saw that in the case of Chrystul Kizer. There was an affirmative defense on the books. They had a law that said that she should be able to defend herself as saying that what happened to me was a direct cause of being exploited through trafficking. However, the judge decided that he was going to find some loophole and say that didn't apply to her.

    And on the flip side, in this case, with Pieper Lewis, we had individuals who saw that she was needing of treatment, but there wasn't really a law on the books that could enable her to bypass the criminal justice system altogether and just receive treatment as a victim.

    So, it tells me that we need both of those to be working in tandem. And we tried to figure it out. We have we have got a little progress going, especially since I was first incarcerated, but we have quite a bit to do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the role of law enforcement in all of this?

    I know you, in your consulting capacity, have done some trainings with law enforcement groups. What do we need to understand about their role in these kinds of cases?

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long:

    So, law enforcement, you have to understand that, nine times out of 10, these are going to be the first responders in these situations. So they're going to be responding to these situations. They're going to be the first person that comes into contact with these individuals.

    And so they have to have some level of discernment to see, well, this is a victim. This is not someone who is a criminal that I need to take to jail. But maybe I need to call in a partner agency who actually works with survivors, or maybe even a survivor representative, to speak with this young girl and see what we can do for her and how we can help her.

    And that's really a big part of it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cyntoia, you have said before that there's this idea of there being no perfect victim in all of these cases.

    When you think about Pieper Lewis, what does that mean? What should people understand?

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long:

    I feel that, if we see news stories about someone getting snatched off the street, kidnapped, it's like, a given, oh, well, let's support this person, let's rally around this individual. No matter what happens, like, this person is a victim.

    But then you see other young girls who don't get that help early on, and the situation just festers. And, finally, they feel that, if no one is going to come to their rescue, they have to do what they have to do to help themselves. All of a sudden, they're seen as they're not a victim, because, oh, well, they were promiscuous, and they chose to be out on the street. Oh, because they ran away from home, we're not going to look at them as a victim.

    And a lot of times, we see young Black girls, well, they should have known better.

    So it's just there are certain individuals that we don't see as victims. Even in awareness initiatives when it comes to trafficking, it always looks the same. It looks as, you know, the victim is this person who's bound by ropes and locked in someone's dungeon. And it's not the young girl who's living on the streets after having run away from an abusive home, and she's with the older boyfriend, because that's the only way that she can survive at the time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As you say, a lot of work to be done and a long way to go.

    That is Cyntoia Brown-Long. She's the author of the book "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System."

    Cyntoia, thanks for being with us.

  • Cyntoia Brown-Long:

    Thank you.

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