Today, my former student, Pieper Lewis bravely took the microphone during her sentencing hearing and told the courtroom that her voice mattered. I was incredibly proud of her. She was powerful, and she brought me to tears. The judge then studied all the evidence in Pieper Lewis’ case carefully and decided that she did not deserve to spend time in an adult prison. Instead, he gave her five years of probation. He decided that 834 days she spent in juvenile detention awaiting her sentencing was enough “punishment” for a then fifteen-year-old girl who had been kicked out of her home and found herself sleeping in the stairwell of one of the most dangerous apartment complexes in Des Moines; a girl that was ultimately preyed upon by men twice her age who traded her body for drugs. These men physically asualted, raped, and sex trafficked Pieper on multiple occasions. On June 1st, 2020, Pieper snapped and killed one of the men who exploited and raped her, stabbing him to death.
Today, the judge recognized that Pieper was a victim and a child. He, like almost everyone who knows the details of Pieper’s case, empathized with a girl with no violent history before or after this incident, who saw killing a man as the only way out of a truly horrific situation. He granted her probation and a deferred judgement—meaning if she meets the conditions of her parole, she will have the felony removed from her record. This is a compassionate outcome.
Yet, Pieper only found herself in this situation because she was initially charged as an adult with 1st degree murder. DMPD and the Polk County prosecutor’s office saw Pieper immediately as a grown, violent, adult, murderer, and they charged her as such. Only because a team of amazing people came to Pieper’s side, was her story truly heard and understood. However, with the risk of life in prison looming, Pieper pled guilty to charges of manslaughter and willful injury. This was to avoid a risky trial where her team feared an Iowa jury may implicitly struggle to see a young black girl as the victim of sex trafficking that she was.
Today, it appears that the decision to put Pieper’s fate in the hands of a judge, as opposed to a jury, was a good one. Pieper will avoid prison, and she will have access to some of the services she needs to continue healing. However, in Iowa, there is a law that states that anyone who is convicted of killing a person, regardless of circumstances, must pay that individual’s family 150,000 dollars. This law is intended to provide justice to families who lost their loved ones. However, in the case of Pieper, it will require her to pay 150,000 dollars to the family of a man who purchased Pieper’s fifteen-year-old body from a sex trafficker, gave her drugs and alcohol, and then raped her repeatedly.
Pieper does not owe that man’s family justice. Pieper does not deserve to be finically burdened for the rest of her life because the state of Iowa wrote a law that fails to give judges any discretion as to how it is applied. This law doesn’t make sense in many cases, but in this case, it’s morally unjustifiable. A child who was raped, under no circumstances, should owe the rapist’s family money.
Pieper has five years of probation ahead of her; five years that she will be required to be nearly perfect to avoid facing 20 years in prison. She will do hundreds of hours of community service each year. She will be subject to drug testing, required to take classes, and attend therapy. Pieper’s path to true freedom will not be easy, and she is still a teenager that has experienced a lot of trauma.
Pieper wants to go to college, she wants to create art, and she wants to advocate for other girls who find themselves in situations like she endured. She does not deserve a massive debt looming over her, holding her back from pursuing her ambitions.
Our system if broken. It will take decades of advocacy and electing people committed to rethinking and reimagining our criminal justice system, especially our juvenile one, to fix the system. In the meantime, Pieper needs us now. If you are able, please donate to help Pieper!
**Update: As the Donations have increased, I am overjoyed with the prospect of removing this burden from Pieper. I have increased the goal and will continue accepting donations above the 200k if we get to that point. The funds will be used in the following ways: 1) Pay off Piepers 150k restitution 2) Pay off the additional 4k in restitution to the state 3) Remove financial barriers for Pieper in pursuing college/university or starting her own business. 4) Give Pieper the financial capacity to explore ways to help other young victims of sex crimes! Thank you! You are all amazing.
- Kelly Wheeler
- Vanessa Byrd
Organizer and beneficiary
Pieper Lewis Trust