Should protection against sexual trafficking be applied in a murder case?

Madison, Wisconsin – On the night of June 2018, 17-year-old Kristul Kieser put a 38-caliber pistol in a bag of books and drove an Uber from Milwaukee to Kenosha.

She went to Randall Volar’s house. According to court documents, she met Volar on a sex trafficking website, and for the past year he has been harassing her and selling her as a prostitute.

Kieser would later tell detectives that the 34-year-old Volar was trying to touch her. She pulled out a gun, told him to sit in a chair and shot him in the head. She then burned his house and stole his BMW, according to court documents.

What looks like an exact criminal murder case may be legal under Wisconsin law, which exempts victims of sexual trafficking from crimes related to human trafficking. The state Supreme Court is ready to decide whether Keezer can claim immunity extends to murder in a case that could help determine the scope of immunity of victims of sexual trafficking in dozens of states across the country.

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Keezer, who is now 21, wants to claim in court that her actions were justified under the law of the then governor. Jim Doyle signed in 2008 that victims of sexual trafficking renounce “any crime committed as a direct result” of human trafficking. But Kenosha County Judge ruled that Kieser could not make that argument, saying extending the law to murder would be absurd.

Anti-violence groups have flocked to Kieser’s defense, arguing in legal statements that victims of human trafficking feel trapped and may feel they have to take matters into their own hands.

Oral hearings are scheduled for Tuesday. The High Court is not being asked to decide whether Kieser is guilty only if she can prove in court that the law protects her from criminal liability. The decision will not legally link other states to similar immunity laws for victims of trafficking. But it could provide a basis for prosecution and defense strategies in such cases and affect how victims respond to abuse, legal experts say.

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“If we live in a civilized society, the question arises, will we give immunity to people who are sexually abused to kill their abusers?” said Julius Kim, defense attorney and former assistant attorney for the Milwaukee County Attorney’s Office. “The consequences can be devastating. Prosecutors general across the country are going to pay attention to see how this happens. ”

Nearly 40 states have passed laws in the last decade that provide victims of sex trafficking with some level of criminal immunity, according to the Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides legal assistance to low-income people. Laws came into being when lawmakers began to understand that traffickers exploited their victims and that states should prefer rehabilitation and assistance rather than punishment.

The degree of immunity varies from state to state. California, Kentucky, Montana and North Dakota, for example, extend immunity to non-prostitution crimes, according to a court report filed by the Gender Justice Clinic at Harvard Law School and 12 other anti-violence groups in support of Kieser.

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According to the coalition, other states limit immunity to prostitution-related offenses. Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming do not limit immunity, but defendants must show that the crimes were related to human trafficking.

Kieser’s lawyers claim in court materials that Kenosha police suspected Volar of trafficking children for sex several months before he was killed. Lawyers claim he filmed himself on video as he sexually assaulted many children. Police arrested Volar in February 2018 and confiscated evidence of sexual assault and child pornography from his home, but later released him and no charges were filed, according to reports.

Her lawyers further said she was 16 when she met Volar. In an interview with the prison in 2019, Kieser told the Washington Post that she met Volar on Backpage.com, a website that is known to promote human trafficking, which has since been shut down by the federal government. She said she needed money for a snack and school. Volar sexually harassed her and passed it on through the website to others, she told the Post.

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According to a criminal complaint, in June 2018, Volar paid for Uber to deliver Kieser from Milwaukee to his home in Kenosha. That night the house caught fire. Police found Volar’s body collapsed in a chair in the house. He was shot and his BMW is missing.

Kieser told detectives she got a gun to protect herself. She said she was tired of Volar touching her and shooting him because the bag locked the door and she was afraid she could not leave, the complaint said. Responding to a question about the fire, Keezer said she watched the TV show “Criminal Minds” and decided to start a fire. She told operatives that she jumped out of the window and drove away in a BMW.

Prosecutors charged her with premeditated first-degree murder, arson, car theft and illegal possession of firearms. She faces life imprisonment if convicted of murder.

Kieser spent two years in prison before being released in June 2020 community groups raised her $ 400,000 bail.

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Her lawyers planned to invoke the Anti-Trafficking Immunity Act in court, but Kenosha County Judge David Wilk declined to allow it, saying the immunity only applies to allegations of human trafficking, such as detention, extortion, sexual acts or slave labor.

Kieser’s lawyer, public defender Katie York, last June, he persuaded the state appeals court to overturn Wilk’s ruling. This court ruled that immunity extends to any crime that is a direct result of human trafficking.

The state Department of Justice has appealed to the state Supreme Court. Assistant Attorney General Timothy Barber argued that the shooting was not a direct result of human trafficking because it was intentional. The day before Volar was killed, Keezer sent a friend a text message “I’ll drive a BMW” and told his boyfriend that he intended to shoot Volar, the prosecutor said. Kieser’s argument that she shot Volar to avoid sexual assault doesn’t make sense, since she shot him while he was sitting in a chair, Barber added.

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“Keezer asks this court to interpret (the law of immunity) in such a way as to create a broader defense based on the status of human trafficking than anyone can argue in any other context of self-defense,” Barber wrote.

York declined to comment on the story. But she argued that Wilk’s interpretation of the immunity statute undermines the purpose of the law, and Kieser should be allowed to take his case to court.

Kate Mogulescu, an associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School that specializes in sex trafficking laws and consulted with one of the parties who filed in support of Kieser, said in a telephone interview that the Supreme Court should be a simple call to allow the jury to consider the context Volar’s death.

“Somehow, if a victim of human trafficking tries to provide additional information and context of what happened in their case, this cannot be allowed? It doesn’t make any sense, ”Magulescu said.

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