At her first court hearing in June 2018, 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer trembled and wore an anti-suicide vest that dwarfed her already tiny frame. She’d been charged with first-degree homicide, auto theft, and arson in the murder of 34-year-old Kenosha, WI, resident Randall Volar. When the judge asked her if she understood the conditions of her $1 million bail, Kizer spoke for the first and only time that day.

“Yes,” she said.

“We do believe there is more to the story that hasn’t been presented yet,” her public defender said to the judge. As it would turn out, this was an understatement — one that the Washington Post explores today in exceptional, often infuriating, detail.

Volar’s murder was big news in Kenosha, a former factory town located roughly halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. On June 5, 2018, Volar’s neighbors called 911 to report that his small, one-story home was on fire. When police and firefighters arrived they found his charred body, two bullet wounds visible in his head.

Law enforcement focused their investigation on Volar’s missing BMW, quickly locating it in Milwaukee. Items inside connected the car to Kizer’s 16-year-old brother, and then to Chrystul herself. A selfie posted on her Facebook page about five hours before the murder appeared to be Kizer in Volar’s home. The caption read: “My Mugshot.” Then, on June 8, according to a criminal complaint, Kizer posted a live video of herself holding a handgun and saying she “wasn’t afraid to kill again.”

When confronted by police, Kizer allegedly confessed, saying that “she got upset and was tired of Volar touching her” and that she had shot him.

While local public sentiment was against Kizer from the beginning, it turned out she was not the only one being investigated for criminal activity. In February 2018, months before his death, police received a complaint from a different teenage girl who said that Volar had been paying her for sex and filming it. In a search of his home, they confiscated computers and other electronics, along with women’s bikini bottoms and underwear.

On February 22, Volar was arrested and charged with child enticement, using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, and second-degree sexual assault of a child. Inexplicably, he was released the same day. At the time of his death he was suspected of human trafficking and child pornography —  and Chrystul Kizer was among the girls police had footage of him having sex with. But as Kizer sat in prison, District Attorney Michael Graveley built a first-degree homicide case against her and wrangled with the public defenders about whether they had the right to review the case against Volar and the accompanying video, photographic, and financial evidence.

Eventually Kizer’s lawyers were granted access to evidence that clearly showed Kizer had been trafficked. Federal law dictates that any child under the age of 18 who has been bought or sold for sex is a sex-trafficking victim, regardless of circumstance. In Wisconsin, sex-trafficking victims have an “affirmative” defense, meaning that if they committed a crime while being trafficked, they can use that as a defense against certain charges.

But on Monday, December 9, 2019, Judge David Wilk ruled that an affirmative defense was “limited” and he found the statute did not apply to Kizer. Now, she faces life in prison.

“The court,” Wilk announced, “is satisfied that a blanket affirmative defense to all acts leads to an absurd result.” 

In effect, he decided that all trafficking victims should be tried for violent crimes, setting an extremely dangerous precedent.

At a time when the laws about sex trafficking and sex work have become a mainstream issue, Kizer’s case stands as a stark example of the divide between policy and real-time criminal justice. The Washington Post’s remarkable deep dive into her story shines some much-needed national attention on the case. So far, Kizer’s story has not raised the kind of celebrity and media awareness that Tennessee sex trafficking survivor Cyntoia Brown received. Brown was granted clemency in August after serving 15 years in prison for murdering the man who bought her for sex when she was underage.

Kizer’s family has set up a GoFundMe account to aid her while she is in custody at the Kenosha County Jail, unable to meet her $1 million bail.

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