A Wisconsin sex trafficking case could have nationwide impact
The case of one Wisconsin sex trafficking victim is working its way through the state’s justice system.
Chrystul Kizer is charged with killing the man who had trafficked and abused her for a year when she was a child. In 2017, 33-year-old Randall Volar met Chrystul Kizer, who was 16, on a sex trafficking website. Over the course of a year, he sexually assaulted her and trafficked her to others.
He was arrested but then released without bail despite the police finding that he sexually abused a dozen underage girls in the area. On a June night in 2018, Kaiser shot Volar in the head with a 38-caliber pistol.
Kizer is charged with a number of felonies, including first-degree intentional homicide. After she shot Volar, she also allegedly set fire to his house and left the scene in his car. So, the prosecution has charged her with arson, theft and a few other offenses in conjunction with what prosecutors say was an attempt to cover up the homicide.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last year that Kizer could argue her actions were defensible under a state law unique to trafficking victims. The state law provides that a trafficking victims be absolved of their offense of offenses if they raise evidence that they committed the crime as a “direct result” of being trafficked and if the state can’t disprove that defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Essentially, everyone on the jury would have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Kizer did not kill Volar as a “direct result” of being trafficked. “Direct result” is not defined in the state law.
“Other states have adopted similar statutes,” says John Gross, director of the Public Defender Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. “And so this is really a in some ways a test case for this type of affirmative defense that could really speak to how this defense should be interpreted, how it should be played, how it should be argued, not just in Wisconsin, but in other states that are becoming increasingly aware that this type of sex trafficking happens, sadly, and far too often.”
Gross says this is part of a trend nationwide to protect trafficking victims, and youth more broadly, as some of the most vulnerable in society. “Since the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling about prohibiting life without parole for juveniles, where they base their decision largely on the idea that, you know, a teenager's brain is not fully formed. They act in impetuous ways. They don't reason out what they're doing. They don't appreciate the consequences of their actions all the time.
In 2020 and 2021, activists mobilized around Kizer online, in Kenosha and elsewhere to get her released on bail. Gross says age and race figure prominently in the case. Kizer, and many, if not all of the girls that Volar exploited are Black—he was white. Kizer was 17-years-old when she killed Volar.
Before Volar started trafficking Kizer, he was under investigation for trafficking and was released on bail to the community. The Washington Post reports that “police had recently found ‘hundreds’ of videos of child sexual abuse in his home during a raid, including videos he’d filmed of his own abuse of Black girls. One of those girls, records show, was Kizer.”
“Throughout our criminal justice system, we have racial disparities,” says Gross. “We have disparities in charging, we have disparities in sentencing, we have disparities around parole and probation.”
Gross says that young people of color tend to be seen as older. “Often in our criminal justice system, young Black boys are seen as adult predators. And I think this is just another example of you have a child, a teenager, who is a person of color, who is not seen as a victim. She's seen as somebody who committed a calculated homicide against an adult white male, who everybody acknowledges was abusing her,” says Gross.
Gross says the easiest way to think about racial disparities in cases like this, is to just switch the race of the defendant and the alleged victim. “OK, if Ms. Kizer was a young white girl, and her alleged abuser was an adult, Black male, would the prosecutor have treated this case the same way? And I think anybody who wants to argue that they would have, I find that hard to believe,” says Gross.
Gross says that the prosecution will try to separate what Kizer did from what was done to her, that there was enough of a break, or gap in time between when she was victimized by Mr. Volar to when she went to his house and allegedly shot and killed him. Gross says the prosecution will try to argue that “this was a calculated act, where [Kizer] attempted to cover her behavior, and then with the goal of stealing from him," says Gross. "As opposed to somebody who when confronted with or interacting with somebody who had victimized them repeatedly, had an emotional reaction, a need to protect themselves or lash out at this person who had harmed them so deeply.”
Motion hearings to resolve pre-trial issues, like the admissibility of statements and other evidence, are scheduled in the case for the end of September.