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Sex trafficking victim, accused of murder, waits for court to rule on her defense

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Wisconsin, that state Supreme Court may soon break new ground when it decides whether a law designed to protect victims of sex trafficking can be used in a murder trial. The centers around Chrystul Kizer. She was 17 years old when she allegedly killed a man whom she says trafficked her. Her team of lawyers wants to use an affirmative defense, which has never been used in a homicide case in the state.

Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In 2018, Chrystul Kizer traveled from Milwaukee, Wis. to Kenosha and allegedly shot and killed Randall Volar. Prosecutors said she then set his house on fire and stole his car. She was 17. He was 34. Authorities say Volar was under investigation for molesting and sex trafficking Kizer and other underage girls and videotaping his alleged assaults on them. Kizer was arrested and charged with intentional murder, arson and theft. What's at issue now is not only whether Kizer is guilty or innocent of the crimes but whether she can use what's called an affirmative defense in her trial.

DIANE ROSENFELD: An affirmative defense is when you admit to a crime, but you offer a reason that should excuse or lessen what the crime actually was.

CORLEY: Diane Rosenfeld heads the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School. She's part of a coalition of advocacy groups keeping a close watch on the case. And they've filed legal documents supporting Kizer.

ROSENFELD: And what we're arguing in Chrystul's case is that there's a statute in Wisconsin that should absolve her of anything because she was a child sex-trafficking victim.

CORLEY: Several states have affirmative defense laws, which grant some immunity to victims of child sex trafficking who commit crimes as a direct result of the trafficking. Wisconsin Attorney Julius Kim says those laws often specify which crimes could be excused.

JULIUS KIM: Like battery or prostitution or robbery or things of that nature - some of them specifically say that homicide is not part of the affirmative defense. But in Wisconsin, the law is ambiguous.

CORLEY: That's prompted a court fight over whether the law can be extended to a victim who kills her trafficker, along with a battle over the meaning of phrases in the Wisconsin law allowing an affirmative defense for, quote, "any offense that's committed as a, quote, 'direct result' of being trafficked."

UNIDENTIFIED COURT OFFICIAL: Hear ye. Hear ye. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has reconvened...

CORLEY: At a hearing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court this month, Kizer's attorney, Katie York, stressed that the clear language of the state law allows her to use it in the effort to clear her client of murder.

KATIE YORK: The legislature chose any offense. This affirmative defense applies to any offense, and that's because that is the language that the legislature chose.

CORLEY: But Assistant Attorney General Timothy Barber argued that Chrystul Kizer did not kill Volar as a direct result of an immediate attack, that instead it was a premeditated murder. He says that's reason enough not to use the affirmative defense law in this case.

TIMOTHY BARBER: If this statute is broad enough as they say, this really seems like if you're being trafficked, you can kill your trafficker and not face any liability.

CORLEY: But in the hearing, Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley rejected that assertion, saying it's ultimately up to a jury to decide what happens if the affirmative defense is used.

REBECCA BRADLEY: It's not a Get Out of Jail Free card. She still has to convince a jury that she did this because she was being trafficked and not for financial gain or some other reason.

CORLEY: It's not clear when the Wisconsin justices will issue their ruling, but their decision could help determine the extent of immunity for sex trafficking victims across the country. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.