Wisconsin’s self-defense law led to Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal on homicide charges, sparking protests across the state and the country. Now, advocates are calling for justice for a child sex trafficking survivor in the state, holding that if Rittenhouse could successfully claim self-defense, then she can, too.
A group of demonstrators gathered this month at Kenosha’s Civic Center Park to protest the Rittenhouse verdict and highlight the case of Chrystul Kizer, who is awaiting trial on charges of killing her alleged sex trafficker three years ago, when she was 17. She says she shot him in self defense.
Kizer is charged with five felonies, including first-degree intentional homicide, for killing Randall Volar III. Her attorneys say she lashed out after years of abuse, and Kizer has said she was underage when he sexually assaulted her.
“My heart and my concern is with Chrystul Kizer. She is not forgotten,” one protester, Lorna Revere, said Sunday, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The anger that hits all people, Black people, white people, that are concerned about the racism that this country faces, is like — it just stabs you in the chest time and time and time again.”
A jury this month found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty of all charges in the fatal shootings of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and the wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, during protests last summer in Kenosha over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer.
Prosecutors said Rittenhouse was an aggressor, traveling from his Illinois home to Kenosha with plans to add to the chaos in the city. But Rittenhouse’s attorneys argued that he went to Kenosha to protect businesses amid the August 2020 protests and was defending himself from attackers. The jury accepted the self-defense claim. According to Wisconsin law, “a person is privileged to threaten or intentionally use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person.”
Following the Rittenhouse verdict, demonstrators chanted Kizer’s name along with the names of the men Rittenhouse shot as they marched through the downtown area to protest the acquittal, according to the Journal Sentinel. Social media users have also called for justice for Kizer, comparing her case to Rittenhouse’s.
Kizer was held in jail until June 2020, when several groups raised $400,000 for her bail. Her attorneys are invoking a state law known as “affirmative defense,” which means Kizer’s act was a “direct result” of her having been a victim of sex trafficking. An appellate court ruled that Kizer may be able to use the defense, according to Kenosha News, and the state Supreme Court is now reviewing that decision. This particular self-defense argument has never been used before in a homicide case in Wisconsin, according to NPR.
Julius Kim, an attorney in Wisconsin and a former prosecutor, said the Rittenhouse case used a “more traditional self-defense claim” than Kizer’s because video showed him in “imminent danger.”
“The reason the state balked at this particular use of affirmative defense is, they’re saying they don’t think that affirmative defense should apply to first-degree intentional homicide cases because that sets off a dangerous precedent,” Kim said. “What they’re saying is if someone commits a first-degree intentional homicide but shows some evidence they committed as a direct result of trafficking, that essentially gives people a license to kill their traffickers.”
Kim added: “I understand why supporters of Chrystul Kizer feel like Chrystul Kizer should be allowed to avail herself to the affirmative defense that she wants to … A lot of people are watching this case because they want to see whether it’s going to have implications for other” affirmative defense cases.
The Kenosha County district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kizer was 17 when she shot Volar in the head and set his home on fire before stealing his car in June 2018. Kizer said she met Volar, then 34, through Backpage — a now-shuttered sex ads website — and he sold her to men for sex. Kizer said Volar had been filming his abuse of her since she was 16 and she acted in self-defense after he pinned her to the floor when she refused to have sex with him. Prosecutors have argued that Kizer simply wanted to steal Volar’s car. But in a 2019 Washington Post interview from jail, Kizer said that she shot Volar in self-defense.
It was later revealed by The Washington Post that both prosecutors and Kenosha police had evidence that Volar, who is white, had abused Kizer and other underage Black girls. Just months before his death, a 15-year-old girl accused him of drugging and threatening to kill her, according to the Post. And police found exploitative videos of Volar abusing girls who appeared as young as 12, the Post reported.
Kizer’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Before last summer’s George Floyd protests renewed interest in Kizer’s case, advocacy groups had been working to release her. An online petition to free Kizer has amassed more than 1.4 million signatures and, along with advocates, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, and actor Alyssa Milano voiced their support for Kizer online. Several advocacy groups, including the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Survived & Punished, the Chrystul Kizer Defense Committee, and the Milwaukee Freedom Fund, raised her $400,00 bail, according to WITI.
“It was only because of the outpouring of support following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people in the United States that we were able to post a bond this large,” Sharlyn Grace, former executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, told Wisconsin Public Radio last year.
Kizer is one of many “criminalized survivors,” people imprisoned for killing or injuring their alleged abusers. Cyntoia Brown spent 15 years in prison for killing a man who solicited her for sex when she was 16. Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault in 2010 for firing a warning shot in her Florida home to scare off her allegedly abusive estranged husband. In New York, advocates are demanding that authorities drop all charges against Tracy McCarter, who faces 25 years to life in prison for killing her estranged husband.
“The reality is that Chrystul Kizer was not kept safe by police and prosecution and incarceration," Grace said. "And, in fact, after she was forced to defend herself and she chose to survive, she was then further harmed by those systems.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 6, 2021, 10:49 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Kyle Rittenhouse had the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle used in the Kenosha shootings. Rittenhouse acquired the weapon in Wisconsin, it was revealed at his trial; he did not leave his home in Illinois with it.