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Lawyers for Iowa teen who killed man she said raped her may appeal $150,000 she was ordered to pay his family

“The absurdity is apparent: that she was a victim, but the law, as is being applied here, really doesn’t recognize that,” a lawyer for the teen said.

As online outrage mounts and donations pour in for a teenager in Des Moines, Iowa, who was ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the family of a man who she said had raped her, her lawyers are considering whether to seek a discretionary review with the Iowa Supreme Court.

Pieper Lewis, a repeat runaway, was 15 when she fatally stabbed Zachary Brooks, 37, more than 30 times in June 2020 in a Des Moines apartment. She pleaded guilty in June 2021 to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury. Polk County District Judge David Porter on Tuesday sentenced Lewis, who had been jailed at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center for two years, to five years of closely supervised probation and ordered her to pay $150,000 in restitution to Brooks’ family.

Porter said he had no choice because restitution is mandatory under Iowa law.

At the request of Lewis’ attorneys, the judge granted a deferred judgment, which means her guilty plea could be expunged if she meets the terms of her probation.

At a sentencing hearing Tuesday, one of Lewis’ attorneys, Matthew Sheeley, an assistant state public defender, argued that Brooks’ estate was not entitled to any restitution.

“Legally speaking, our position was that the entry of the deferred judgment is not a conviction under the statute and therefore it does not trigger the restitution requirement,” Sheeley said in an interview Wednesday. “Now, of course, the state’s argument, I believe, is in any situation where an offender commits an offense and they receive a deferred judgment, they’re always obligated to pay restitution.”

Pieper Lewis listens as her attorney Matthew Sheeley questions a witness during a sentencing hearing on Sept. 13, 2022.
Pieper Lewis listens as her attorney Matthew Sheeley questions a witness during a sentencing hearing on Sept. 13, 2022.Zach Boyden-Holmes / The Register via USA TODAY Network

Sheeley said the defense also argued Tuesday “that the Legislature could not have intended a situation where, as here, the person that’s receiving the restitution actually committed a criminal offense.”

“Based on what Pieper admitted to in her guilty plea, we are confronted with a situation where she is now being ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the estate of Zachary Brooks — the very person who she said in her guilty plea” had sexually assaulted her, Sheeley said. “So the absurdity is apparent: that she was a victim, but the law, as is being applied here, really doesn’t recognize that.”

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said Brooks “was most likely asleep” at the time he was stabbed and “clearly not in a position to defend himself.” Prosecutors have argued that Brooks was not an immediate threat to Lewis. Sarcone said that the restitution is required under Iowa law and that she knew it would be imposed when she pleaded guilty.

“The court had no discretion but to impose this requirement,” Sarcone said.

Sheeley said the judge did what he thought the law required.

“I will not fault a judge for doing his job,” he said. “And our team absolutely respects the judge, even if we may have a legal disagreement.”

Robert Rigg, a law professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said he has never heard of a governor in Iowa interceding on behalf of a defendant in a restitution matter, which some people have implored Gov. Kim Reynolds to do. But he said he believes she has the inherent power to do that. Alex Murphy, a spokesman for Reynolds, did not reply to multiple phone and email requests for comment.

Sheeley said Lewis’ legal team may seek a discretionary review with the Iowa Supreme Court, asking it to address whether she should be required to pay the restitution.

Rigg said that if he were a member of Lewis’ defense team, he would be sending out feelers to the governor’s office to see whether it would be willing to commute that part of the sentence.

“I certainly think you’ve got a compelling case to take to the governor’s office and say, ‘Look, Governor, we’re not asking you to commute this entire sentence, just that portion where she’s going to be required to pay the $150,000,’” Rigg said.

Rigg, who worked in the public defender’s office for 17 years, said what Lewis’ lawyers accomplished “was actually a really good result for their client.”

“First they knocked a murder one into a voluntary manslaughter,” he said. “That, in itself, here in Iowa is a big deal. The second part was achieving a deferred judgment on this case, which is an astounding achievement for the defense bar.”

In a statement filed as part of her plea agreement, Lewis said she ran away from home three times from January to March 2020 to escape emotional and physical abuse. In early 2020, she had been taken in by various people who turned abusive, the last of whom was Christopher Brown, 28, she said. Attempts to reach Brown for comment at numbers listed for him were unsuccessful.

In the witness statement, she said that she was sleeping in the hallways of a Des Moines apartment building when Brown took her in and that they developed a sexual relationship immediately after she moved into his apartment. She said he told her that she was his girlfriend, signed her up for dating sites and then arranged for her to have sex with men for money.

In May 2020, Lewis said in her statement, Brown arranged for her to stay at Brooks’ apartment for three days. The two men were acquaintances, she said. While she was there, she alleged in her statement, Brooks forced her to drink alcohol and use marijuana and raped her five times while she was unconscious. Weeks later, Lewis alleged, Brown forced her to return to Brooks’ apartment, where he intoxicated her and raped her again. When she realized Brooks had raped her, she said, she was “overcome with rage,” grabbed a knife from his nightstand and began stabbing him.

In court, Lewis’ attorneys have accused Brown of aiding and abetting sex trafficking. Brown has not been charged.

Sarcone said the human trafficking allegations are under investigation, “and we do not comment on investigations.”

A GoFundMe campaign launched to help pay the $150,000 in restitution to Brooks’ family has drawn nearly 11,000 donations totaling more than $400,000. Some of the donors have implored the governor to get involved. The GoFundMe campaign is also intended to “remove financial barriers” for Lewis, according to its organizer.

A spokesperson for GoFundMe said it has seen an outpouring of support for Lewis, especially over the last 48 hours, from donors across the U.S., as well as around the world.