Pieper Lewis gets 20-year sentence, but then is placed on probation again

Des Moines sex-trafficking victim Pieper Lewis will get a third chance ― but with a manslaughter conviction on her record and a lengthy prison sentence awaiting if she slips up again.

Lewis, who violated her probation by leaving a transitional facility without permission, appeared in court for a hearing Wednesday almost three years to the day since the then-15-year-old stabbed to death Zachary Brooks, 37, in the early hours of June 1, 2020, after he raped her.

Polk County Judge David M. Porter revoked a deferred judgment he gave Lewis, now 18, in September on felony counts of voluntary manslaughter and willful injury and sentenced her to 20 years behind bars.

But he then suspended the sentence and placed her on five years' probation, as he had previously, to be served at a location yet to be determined.

He also gave her a time-served sentence for her guilty plea to an escape charge in connection with her unauthorized departure from the center where she had been sent to serve her probationary term.

Pieper Lewis, a Des Moines sex trafficking victim who gained national prominence after being ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of her rapist, appeared in court Wednesday May 31, 2023.
Pieper Lewis, a Des Moines sex trafficking victim who gained national prominence after being ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of her rapist, appeared in court Wednesday May 31, 2023.
Pieper Lewis, a Des Moines sex trafficking victim who gained national prominence after being ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of her rapist, appeared in court Wednesday May 31, 2023.
Pieper Lewis, a Des Moines sex trafficking victim who gained national prominence after being ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of her rapist, appeared in court Wednesday May 31, 2023.

Though Brooks' father shouted profanities in the courtroom after Porter pronounced his ruling, Lewis displayed no emotion. It was clear, however, that she had gotten a break. In the nationally publicized September decision, the judge had warned Lewis that she was getting a "second chance" and warned she wouldn't get a third.

He said he stood by that pledge in his ruling, which split the difference between recommendations by the Iowa Department of Corrections and her defense attorneys. The department, via Lewis' probation officer, asked that the deferred judgment be revoked and she be sent to prison, while her lawyers said the deferred judgment and her probation should continue.

Porter said that with the judgment revoked, Lewis is now a convicted felon with two felonies on her record and is prohibited from owning firearms and voting and is subject to other limitations.

Polk County Attorney Kimberly Graham, who argued against sending Lewis to prison, said she supported Porter's decision.

"Ms. Lewis is not at high risk for violence. She would be especially vulnerable to being revictimized should she remain incarcerated," Graham said in a statement following the hearing, adding that the renewed probation will allow Lewis to pursue more effective treatment. "The State believes she will succeed."

Pieper Lewis: 'I need to go forward'

Lewis originally was charged with first-degree murder in Brooks' death. The charges were reduced after a Des Moines Register investigation revealed that at the time of the killing, the teen runaway had been taken in by a small-time musician turned pimp who sexually abused her and had sent her to Brooks in exchange for marijuana.

Prosecutors last fall concurred with the decision to allow probation for Lewis, who has said she wants to become an advocate for trafficking victims.

Lewis was sent to Fresh Start for Women, a Des Moines transitional facility for women getting out of prison, because Iowa has lacked a facility for girls charged with serious crimes since the 2014 closing of the state-run Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo. The shutdown followed a Register investigation that revealed youths there had been kept in isolation cells for months at a time while being denied adequate education.

Lewis said in court Wednesday that she lost her sense of direction at Fresh Start. She noted that she was returned under probation to the community two weeks after her case became a national news story.

"I just need to heal by myself and heal with the community later on and then tell my story instead of trying to rush everything," Lewis said. "Some of the choices at Fresh Start were either responses of trauma or responses of old habits. I need to know that it's not time for me to go backwards. I need to go forward and continue to move forward."

In a March interview with the Register, Lewis, held in the Polk County Jail since her arrest, said she had felt unsafe at Fresh Start and cut off from therapy and her job at a downtown pizzeria while quarantined with roommates who had COVID-19. She also said she was struggling in a facility filled with people stuck in a criminal lifestyle and drug use.

"My routine was all out of whack," Lewis said. "All my support systems, I didn't really have them like I did. I liked going to work. I liked going to therapy. I liked being outside. Being trapped in a room again kind of reminded me of my past life.

"It made me feel like I was locked up again," added Lewis, who spent about two years in juvenile detention after her arrest in Brooks' death. "So I felt like I had to take matters into my own hands for my safety."

Witnesses for Lewis: Prison is the wrong place for her

On Wednesday, Lewis' attorneys had a clear theme they wanted their witnesses to hammer home: Prison would not be a good place to send her.

John Romero Jr., a retired juvenile court district court judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, testified that Lewis needs to go to a gender-specific program that is age appropriate and is tailored to her needs.

He said human traffickers often tell their victims that unless they comply, they will end up in an even worse situation, such as going to prison.

"Incarceration or detention is another fulfillment of the prophecy that exploiters tell them. Are we any different than the trafficker by taking away their voice, by telling them when you can get up, when to get up, when you go to bed, when to spend time outdoors?... We're the ones that continue to exploit and do the opposite of protecting the public and rehabilitating an individual."

Also testifying was Yasmin Vafa, executive director of the nonprofit Rights4Girls, who in an April report with Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law School Center on Gender Justice & Opportunity, recommended that policymakers end the punishment of girls who act against abusers in self-defense.

Vafa told Porter it is common for sex trafficking victims to run away from threatening situations.

"When we’re dealing with young teens, they can act out, but it’s important to ask ourselves: Is this drama or trauma manifesting?" Vafa said. "Most of the time with this population, it’s trauma. Running is an avoidant behavior, and it’s a form of self preservation.”

Like Vafa, Teresa Davidson, co-founder and CEO of Cedar Rapids anti-trafficking organization Chains Interrupted, said victims need highly structured therapeutic programs that take them out of the environments where they were trafficked. Fresh Start, blocks from where Lewis had lived with the musician, was not equipped to address Lewis’ needs, Davidson said.

She said prison doesn't end abusive relationships, and that traffickers can target incarcerated people by grooming them and forming relationships through letter writing. They also can "fill a need" by putting money in victims' commissary accounts or sending gifts through the mail.

"Then when the person gets out of prison, then they're there to say, 'You owe me now. I did all this for you,' or, 'I was the only one that was there for you. You owe me,'" she said. "Or they form that relationship and they feel dependent on them and they take them off into exploitation."

In Des Moines, she said, Lewis had another obstacle because, wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor, she stuck out while commuting by bus to and from work.

"It’s hard to blend in when you’re wearing such a thing," Davidson said, pointing out that Lewis also had trouble because of the wide media coverage of her case.

Given her notoriety, the location of the facility that will treat Lewis during her second try at probation should not be made public, Davidson said.

Graham, the county attorney, recommended that the facility be "outside of central Iowa."

Probation officer says Lewis should be locked up

Testifying for the prosecution, Lewis' probation officer, Emma Dedic, said the Iowa Department of Corrections recommended revoking the deferred judgment and sending Lewis to prison. When Lewis was arrested after her Nov. 4 escape, she attempted to run from the officers who arrested her, picked off her handcuffs in the squad car on the way to the Polk County Jail and tried to push through an officer to get out of jail.

"Her behavior alone, and the disturbances she had, just show that she was not appropriate for community corrections," Dedic said.

But Graham recommended that Lewis be placed on probation because she did not harm anyone during the time she was away from Fresh Start and was found by officers in the same neighborhood she had left, sitting on a swing in a park. She also recommended that Lewis, as Porter ruled, be given credit for the six months she served at the Polk County Jail after her arrest on the escape charge.

Polk County Attorney Kimberly Graham listens during a court hearing for Pieper Lewis in Des Moines, May 31, 2023.
Polk County Attorney Kimberly Graham listens during a court hearing for Pieper Lewis in Des Moines, May 31, 2023.

Graham ― who took office in January ― said she arrived at her recommendation after meeting with Lewis last week. Like the defense witnesses, Graham said trafficking victims who are exploited and sent to prison are vulnerable and more likely to become victims again.

With the right support, trafficking victims can lead successful lives, she said.

"After that conversation with Ms. Lewis and her counsel, we discussed the plan, the recommendations that her attorneys were making and that I was considering also making," Graham said, smiling at Lewis. "I believe in her sincerity and her commitment to work that plan. I believe Ms. Lewis when she said she is committed to the plan that we've all recommended, and I believe she will see it through."

Judge: 'What I'm looking for is progress'

Porter expressed skepticism. He pointed out that, against the advice of her therapist and other people trying to help her, Lewis in the past three months had given interviews to The Des Moines Register and KCCI-TV and reached out to national media.

Lewis' attorney, Matthew Sheeley, acknowledged her behavior was problematic, but told Porter that sex trafficking victims commonly try to talk to reporters to advocate for themselves.

"I don't think anyone is asking for perfection," Porter retorted. "What I'm looking for is progress. Understanding that the need to speak out publicly, from every professional who knows Ms. Lewis, says it's a bad idea, but she does it anyway, how is that progress?"

He also noted that she had at one point sought to fire Sheeley and her other attorneys, Magdalena Reese and Paul White. Lewis recanted her request in a May 5 hearing, but Porter said that showed she was willing to walk away from the team who supported her.

Sheeley responded that "this whole endeavor requires patience."

"That’s what we’re asking the court to do here is recognize that some patience may be needed before we can see progress," he said.

Lewis wants pardon from Gov. Kim Reynolds

Lewis has one other option: She told KCCI-TV last week that she's asked for a pardon from Gov. Kim Reynolds. An online petition in support of a pardon, started by Black Liberation Movement member Jalesha Johnson, recounted Lewis' story and noted that when, under Iowa law, Lewis was ordered as part of her September sentence to pay Brooks' estate $150,000, people around the country chipped in to raise far more than that amount.

"All of America was in an outrage at how unjustly Iowa was treating her," said the petition, signed by more than 1,100 people as of Wednesday. "It is our hope, all the people who shared her story, donated to her cause and raised awareness ― will once again wrap their hands around Pieper Lewis."

But Kollin Crompton, Reynolds' spokesperson, said in a statement this week, "The Governor’s Office has not received a formal pardon application from Pieper Lewis.”

Philip Joens covers retail, real estate, public safety and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines sex trafficking victim Pieper Lewis gets probation again