A Caged Bird Sings in Iowa
The Case of Pieper Lewis (TW: Sexual Violence)
As conservatives tease the possibility of a nationwide abortion ban ahead of the midterm elections, the case of Pieper Lewis highlights another dimension of depravity made possible by a society that subordinates the rights of oppressed people to the insatiable demands of the legal system. After killing her rapist, Pieper was ordered to pay his estate $150,000.
Pieper Lewis, 17, was originally charged with first-degree murder in the June 2020 killing of 37-year-old Zachary Brooks of Des Moines. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and willful injury, both punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Lewis was 15 when she stabbed Brooks more than 30 times in a Des Moines apartment. Officials have said Lewis was a runaway seeking to escape an abusive life with her adopted mother and was sleeping in the hallways of an apartment building when a 28-year-old man took her in before trafficking her to other men for sex.
Lewis said one of those men was Brooks, who raped her multiple times in the weeks before his death. She recounted being forced at knifepoint by the 28-year-old man to go with Brooks to his apartment for sex. She told officials that after Brooks raped her yet again, she grabbed a knife from a bedside table and stabbed him in a fit of rage.
The judge peppered Lewis with requests to explain what poor choices she made that led up to Brooks’s stabbing and expressed concern that she sometimes did not want to follow rules in juvenile lockup.
“The next five years of your life will be full of rules you disagree with, I’m sure of it,” Porter said. He added: “This is the second chance that you’ve asked for. You don’t get a third.”
Aside from the humiliation and backwardness of the judge forcing Pieper to interrogate her moral failings as a survivor, ordering that she pay restitution to her rapist’s family is particularly perverse because Iowa’s mandatory restitution law is modeled after the federal Mandatory Victims Restitution Act which was enacted an extension of the Violence Against Women Act. Both the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act and the Violence Against Women Act were designed to ensure that victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation receive mandatory rather discretionary restitution from their abusers. Ordering Pieper to pay restitution creates a fiction where she becomes the abuser and her rapist becomes the victim. These are the kinds of absurdities that ensue when there are certain bodies to which autonomy simply does not extend. The judge demonstrated that the concept of self-ownership as applied to Black women is illegible to the eyes of the law. In fact, the assertion of self-ownership in the face of impending brutality and death is enough to disqualify us from the category of victim altogether.
The fundamental question of bodily autonomy, particularly in the contexts of pregnancy and rape, is always this - who gets to decide if the condition persists? The true offense Pieper committed was, not only asserting her right to herself in a world which says she has none, but declining to be rescued by a state that did not believe her to be worthy of rescue in the first place. Restitution is required because, by refusing (in the most absolute way possible) the persistence of her own rape, Pieper decided that she was just as legitimate an arbiter of justice as the law.
People have been righteously outraged by this order of restitution. A GoFundMe started by one of Pieper’s former teachers quickly surpassed the amount required by the court. The question now is whether the measures taken up by Black women and girls in defense of their bodies and selves will be taken seriously as forms of reproductive justice by those who have made their outrage known or whether Black women and girls will continue live under the merciless demand to be respectable victims. In Pieper’s words, “The reality is, I will make mistakes. Even with the court’s pressure and the thought [that] one mistake I will make determines my entire future. I refuse to fail. I refuse to let the system fail me. Some days I feel like giving up. But, yet again, I am the light at the end of the tunnel. I flicker brighter than the simple thought of my own future. I must prevail. ”
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