On Tuesday, Pieper Lewis, a 17-year-old survivor of trafficking and sexual assault, was ordered by an Iowa judge to pay $150,000 in restitution to her perpetrator’s family after killing him in self-defense.
David M. Porter, a Polk County District Judge, called the ruling “a second chance” for the formerly homeless teenager who, at just 15 years old, alleged she was trafficked and raped multiple times by 37-year-old Zachary Brooks and had no choice but to fatally stab the man to protect herself. The sentence also includes five years of probation and GPS tracking while she lives at the Fresh Start Women’s Center, in addition to 600 hours of community service. If Lewis violates her probation terms, she could face up to 20 years in prison.
“Well, Ms. Lewis, this was the second chance you asked for. You don’t get a third. Do you understand that?” Porter reportedly asked the girl after the sentencing.
Lewis had just made a heartbreaking witness statement questioning who was truly the victim in this case. “I took a person’s life,” she told the court. “My intentions that day were not to just go out and take somebody’s life. In my mind, I felt that I wasn’t safe and I felt that I was in danger, which resulted in the acts. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that a crime was committed.”
She added: “I am a survivor.”
Even still, Porter told the court that Iowa law, which requires people convicted of homicides to pay $150,000 in compensation, requires him to order restitution for Brooks’ family.
According to the New York Times, Lewis, the adopted daughter of a “mentally and emotionally” abusive mother, had become a repeat runaway and faced a dozen instances of varying abuses by the time she turned 15. In 2020, Lewis was sleeping in the hallways of an apartment complex when she was taken in by Christopher Brown, who purported to be her boyfriend, yet required her to have sex with men for money on multiple occasions. Lewis alleged that Brown created profiles for her on dating sites and arranged for her to have sex with men in exchange for money “seven or eight times” amid a global pandemic.
“Mr. Brown told me that Mr. Brooks would want to have sex with me since he was allowing me to stay with him,” she recalled via 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.”
In May of 2020, Lewis said Brown left her at Brooks’ apartment, one of his friends, while his daughter and mother came to visit. She claimed Brooks forced her to drink alcohol, then raped her five times while she was unconscious. Brown allegedly forced Lewis to return to Brooks’s apartment weeks later, only to find herself intoxicated and raped two more times while she drifted in and out of consciousness.
When Lewis woke up and realized she’d been assaulted again by Brooks, she said took a knife and stabbed him 30 times: “Without thinking, I immediately grabbed the knife from his night stand and began stabbing him.”
Prosecutors claimed Brooks was still asleep when she began stabbing him, therefore he didn’t pose a threat to her. Meanwhile, Lewis’s defense doubled down that she was a victim of sex trafficking and abuse and was motivated to protect herself. Brown has not been charged with a crime at this time.
“I wish that never happened,” Lewis said of the killing. “But to say there’s only one victim in the story is absurd.”
According to current Iowa law, 16 is the age for sexual consent, though adolescents ages 14 and 15 can consent to people who are no more than 48 months older than them. The state doesn’t yet have a “safe harbor” law, which is legislation that offers legal protections for victims of trafficking and sexual abuse.
Lewis’s case is just the latest in that of a long line of underage Black girls—Bresha Meadows, Cyntoia Brown, and Chrystul Kizer, to name a few—who’ve survived unspeakable abuse and suffered some form of legal punishment simply for protecting themselves. Even still, according to one of Lewis’s attorney, she’s completed high school, joined the Youth Justice Counsel at the detention center in which she’s been detained since her arrest, and hopes to become a juvenile justice advocate.
“My story can change things. My story has changed me,” Lewis said in court. “The events that took place on that horrific day cannot be changed, as much as I wish I could. That day a combination of complicated actions took place resulting in the death of a person, as well as a stolen innocence of a child.”