NOTE: This article contains descriptions of a sexual nature that are disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.
A teenage human trafficking victim who was initially charged with first-degree murder after she stabbed her accused rapist to death was sentenced Tuesday in an Iowa court to five years of closely supervised probation and ordered to pay US$150,000 restitution to the man’s family.
Pieper Lewis, 17, was sentenced Tuesday after she pleaded guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter and willful injury in the June 2020 killing of 37-year-old Zachary Brooks of Des Moines. Both charges were punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Polk County District judge David M. Porter on Tuesday deferred those prison sentences, meaning that if Lewis violates any portion of her probation, she could be sent to prison to serve that 20-year term.
As for being required to pay the estate of her rapist, “this court is presented with no other option,” Porter said, noting the restitution is mandatory under Iowa law that has been upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Lewis was 15 when she stabbed Brooks more than 30 times in a Des Moines apartment in 2020. At the time, she was a repeat runaway who had been taken in by a man who portrayed himself as her boyfriend while trafficking her for sex.
In the weeks leading up to the stabbing, Lewis said that Brooks had raped her multiple times despite her pleas for him to stop. She was forced at knifepoint to go to Brooks’ apartment by the man who was trafficking her.
The last time Brooks raped her, Lewis grabbed a knife off the bedside table and stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of rage.
Police and prosecutors have not disputed that Lewis was sexually assaulted and trafficked. But prosecutors have argued that Brooks was asleep at the time he was stabbed and not an immediate danger to Lewis.
In Lewis’ witness statement, according to the New York Times, the teenager had run away from an abusive home with her adopted mother three times within three months in 2020. At first, she stayed with the older sister of a classmate who gave her a place to sleep in exchange for babysitting services, but that arrangement later fell apart.
With no place to live, Lewis began to sleep in the hallway of the apartment building where she had been staying with the classmate’s sister. She was taken in by a male neighbour but that relationship became violent and Lewis left.
Another neighbour, Christopher Brown, 28, offered to let her stay with him and the two soon began a relationship, with Lewis later saying she believed Brown to be her boyfriend.
In her statement, Lewis says that Brown signed her up for dating sites and arranged for her to have sex with men for money. She said Brown did this about seven to eight times while she stayed in his apartment from April to June 2, 2020.
In May, Brown told Lewis that she had to stay at the home of one of his acquaintances while his daughter and her mother visited.
“Mr. Brown told me that Mr. Brooks would want to have sex with me since he was allowing me to stay with him,” she wrote in her statement. “I did not want to have sex with Mr. Brooks because I believed that Mr. Brown was my boyfriend. I did not want to go to Mr. Brooks’s apartment but I had no other place to go.”
While staying in Brooks’ apartment, Lewis says that the 37-year-old made her drink alcohol and smoke marijuana until she was unconscious. Then, he raped her five times, she says.
After she returned to Brown’s apartment, her trafficker told her later that month to go back to Brooks’ apartment to get them marijuana.
“He told me that I needed to ‘turn that trick’ to ‘get us some weed,'” she said.
Lewis refused and Brown “grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter and pressed it against my neck,” she wrote in her statement. Brown removed the knife when she agreed to go.
On June 1, Brooks picked Lewis up from Brown and took her back to his apartment. Lewis says that Brooks was intoxicated at the time and she hoped that he would fall asleep while watching a movie.
“I tried to remain calm and kept thinking he will pass out and I will leave his apartment at first light,” she said.
Instead, Brooks forced her to take shots of vodka and smoke marijuana, causing her to fall asleep.
When Lewis woke up, Brooks was raping her. She asked him to stop but soon lost consciousness again. When she awoke later in the night her clothes were missing.
Lewis says she “saw a box of KY Jelly and a knife with a black sheath lying on one of his night stands next to his bed,” while Brooks was asleep beside her. She realized that Brooks had raped her again and, “without thinking, I immediately grabbed the knife from his night stand and began stabbing him,” she said.
She says she showered and drove one of Brooks’ cars back to Brown’s apartment. Lewis was arrested the next day.
During Lewis’ sentencing hearing on Tuesday, her lawyers accused Brown of aiding and abetting sex trafficking — but police have still not pressed charges.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone told the New York Times, “The matter is still pending and we do not comment on pending matters.”
In the U.S., dozens of states have instituted safe harbour laws that give trafficking victims some level of criminal immunity from prosecution. Iowa is not one of those states.
‘I am a survivor’
Lewis, who earned her GED while being held in juvenile detention, acknowledged in a statement prior to her sentencing that she struggled with the structure of her detention, including “why I was treated like fragile glass” or wasn’t allowed to communicate with her friends or family.
“My spirit has been burned, but still glows through the flames,” she read from a statement she had prepared. “Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow.”
“I am a survivor,” she added.
Prosecutors took issue with Lewis calling herself a victim in the case and said she failed to take responsibility for stabbing Brooks and “leaving his kids without a father.”
The judge peppered Lewis with repeated requests to explain what poor choices she made that led up to Brooks’ stabbing and expressed concern that she sometimes did not want to follow rules set for her in juvenile lockup.
In Lewis’ testimony, she said she wished “the events on June 1, 2020, never occurred but to say there is one victim is absurd.”
“The next five years of your life will be full of rules you disagree with, I’m sure of it,” Porter said. He later added, “This is the second chance that you’ve asked for. You don’t get a third.”
Karl Schilling with the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance said a bill to create a safe harbour law for trafficking victims passed the Iowa House earlier this year, but stalled in the Senate under concerns from law enforcement groups that it was too broad.
“There was a working group established to iron out the issues,” Shilling said. “Hopefully it will be taken up again next year.”
Iowa does have an affirmative defence law that gives some leeway to victims of crime if the victim committed the violation “under compulsion by another’s threat of serious injury, provided that the defendant reasonably believed that such injury was imminent.”
Prosecutors argued Tuesday that Lewis waived that affirmative defence when she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and willful injury.
— with files from The Associated Press
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.