On a sun-dappled afternoon in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday, protesters marched through the city’s downtown area, chanting the names of the men Kyle Rittenhouse killed and injured in August 2020: Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz.
They also chanted another name, someone not related to Rittenhouse’s case at all: Chrystul Kizer, the young Black woman at the center of another Kenosha homicide case that could have major implications for victims of human trafficking.
But in the wake of Rittenhouse’s acquittal on all counts Friday, Kizer’s supporters are trying to shift public attention back to her case, which is being reviewed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Kizer, now 21, is facing a first-degree intentional homicide charge, which carries an automatic life sentence, for allegedly killing her sexual abuser, Randall Phillip Volar III, when she was 17.
“We’ve seen that Rittenhouse can get away with premeditated murder. Chrystul Kizer should be able to actually defend herself,” Jess Singh, a Kenosha resident and activist who participated in Sunday’s rally, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Jurors found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty of homicide, attempted homicide and other charges related to the shootings.)
“Chrystul Kizer was in this building [the Kenosha County Courthouse] advocating for her justice too,” Democratic state Rep. David Bowen said, according to local reports. Bowen appeared to criticize the public, particularly Rittenhouse’s supporters, for ignoring Kizer’s case. “We didn’t hear any of y’all. And we didn’t hear anybody that was out making noises for Kyle Rittenhouse.”
There are clear parallels in both their cases, outside of their connection to the small Wisconsin city: They were both teenagers accused of committing homicide; their cases attracted national attention; and race and gender played a big part in people’s interest in the cases, with some seeing them as reflections of the biases of the U.S. justice system.
But Kizer’s case — and her self-defense claim — is unique, and not just in comparison to Rittenhouse’s.
How her case is decided could shape how future crimes involving victims of trafficking are litigated — particularly those in which child victims of trafficking have killed their alleged abusers. In past decades, those teenagers were painted by prosecutors as “child prostitutes” who were out to rob their clients.
But in recent years, courts, governors and state legislators have been reexamining such cases with a new understanding of the unique trauma child trafficking victims endure. Most of those cases have involved children of color.
This disparity is at the heart of the public interest in Kizer’s case.
In Kizer’s case, the question at hand is about a unique legal argument that is similar to self-defense but stands on its own in Wisconsin law. The statute is called the “affirmative defense.” If victims of trafficking can prove that a crime they committed was a “direct result” of the trafficking they experienced, they can be acquitted of the charges against them.
Affirmative defense arguments are part of a larger national trend acknowledging that trafficking has a unique impact for victims.
“Oftentimes, victims of trafficking have more police exposure, so they are more likely than other types of victims to be charged with a crime,” noted Caitlin Noonan, a staff attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, which is writing an amicus brief in support of Kizer’s appeal.
Because Kizer was a minor when she was involved in the exchange of sex for goods of value, she is, under federal law, considered a victim of trafficking. But it’s unclear whether she is entitled to use the affirmative defense. Experts say Wisconsin’s law, which is broader than most states’ laws to protect trafficking victims, has never been used in a violent crime before.
Kizer’s public defenders say the affirmative defense law should apply to Kizer, meaning she would have the chance to prove to a judge, and then a jury, that her crimes were a “direct result” of being trafficked.
But the Kenosha District Attorney’s Office, which also prosecuted Rittenhouse, has said that Kizer should not be entitled to an affirmative defense because she committed a homicide.
Additionally, prosecutors say that even if Kizer can prove her crimes were a result of being trafficked, the charges should be reduced from first-degree intentional homicide to second-degree. That means Kizer could still face up to 60 years in prison. (The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
The legal battle over the affirmative defense has lasted more than two years. The question must be decided before trial, because it dictates how the case will be argued by prosecutors and Kizer’s public defenders. (Kizer was released from jail in June 2020 after community bail funds, including the Chicago Community Bond Fund, paid her $400,000 bond.) After an appeals court ruled in Kizer’s favor this past June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review her case at the state’s request.
Now, Kizer is waiting to learn the final say on whether she will have access to this particular legal strategy. The decision could be months away.
This is why it’s so important how the courts interpret her affirmative defense claim, said Noonan of Legal Action of Wisconsin. If she’s successful, other victims of human trafficking will be able to access this legal remedy.
If the state’s highest court rules against her, Kizer may need to rely on the more standard self-defense laws that were employed to defend Rittenhouse, according to legal experts.
At that point, prosecutors may point to what they say is evidence that Kizer premeditated the murder. They say she brought a gun into Volar’s house, sent a text saying “I’m finna do it,” and downloaded a police scanner app moments after the shooting. Prosecutors say Kizer bragged to a friend that she would soon own a BMW, and after lighting Volar’s house on fire, fled in his BMW.
According to a 2019 Washington Post investigation, at the time of the shooting, Kizer had been sexually abused by Volar for nearly two years. She first met him when she was 16, after placing an ad on the now defunct Backpage.com in hopes of earning money for snacks and school supplies. Her family had recently moved to Milwaukee to flee an abusive partner of her mother’s. Kizer, an artist and violinist, lived in a homeless shelter for months before finding an apartment.
After responding to Kizer’s ad, Volar bought her dinners and gifts, gave her cash and, most importantly to Kizer, acted as a friend when she needed one. In return, Kizer told The Post in 2019, he demanded specific sex acts, which he regularly filmed.
“He was a grown-up, and I wasn’t,” she said. “So I listened.”
Kizer was not the only underage Black girl Volar was filming his abuse of — and the Kenosha Police knew it. Police reports obtained by The Post showed that in February 2018, a 15-year-old called 911 and said Volar had drugged her and was going to kill her. Police raided Volar’s home and arrested him. Then, they released him without bail.
Although investigators found “hundreds” of videos of child abuse, including Volar’s own, the 34-year-old White man remained free for weeks.
On June 4, 2018, Volar paid for Kizer to take an Uber car to his home. She said he gave her a drug that made her feel weird. When she resisted him touching her, she said, he pinned her to the ground and tried to rip her pants off. Kizersaid she remembered wiggling to get free and going for the gun in her bag.
“I didn’t intentionally try to do this,” she said.
In a 2019 statement to The Post, Volar’s father, Randall P. Volar Jr., said “the true story has yet to be told.”
“When the truth comes out, I hope people’s perceptions of my son will change,” Volar said. “What happened is a tragedy for both families, the Kizers and the Volars.”
Whenever Wisconsin’s Supreme Court makes its decision on Kizer’s case, it will shape how future courts see the actions of sex trafficking victims. But in Kenosha, the parallels between the Rittenhouse and Kizer cases, with one young White man free and a young Black women still awaiting trial, drew fresh anger — and heartache.
“My heart and my concern is with Chrystul Kizer,” Lorna Revere, one of the protesters in Kenosha, told the Journal Sentinel on Sunday. “She is not forgotten.”