A Des Moines teenager convicted of killing a man she said raped her got what the judge described as a second chance: a sentence of probation and the possibility of having her record cleared.
But there was one major hitch. Due to an Iowa law, Polk County District Judge David M. Porter said he could not avoid requiring Pieper Lewis to pay $150,000 to the man’s family.
This week, supporters raised it for her — and then some.
A GoFundMe started by one of Lewis’s former teachers, Leland Schipper, topped $400,000 as of Thursday.
More than 10,000 donors contributed, mostly in small amounts, raising the sum within a matter of days of the teen’s Tuesday sentencing hearing.
“I am overjoyed with the prospect of removing this burden from Pieper,” Schipper wrote in an update on the site.
Lewis, now 17, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury in the 2020 killing of 37-year-old Zachary Brooks. In her plea, she laid out a harrowing series of events that led her to that night. She said she ran away from an unstable home life and was then taken in by a 28-year-old man.
He portrayed himself as her boyfriend, but forced the then-15-year-old to have sex with men. Brooks, she said, was one of them. She said that after he sexually assaulted her repeatedly between May 30 and June 1, 2020, and then fell asleep, she became overcome with rage.
“I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks had raped me yet again,” Lewis wrote in her plea. She grabbed a knife from his bedside table and stabbed him dozens of times.
Prosecutors did not dispute her allegations that she was trafficked, and a Polk County judge wrote that evidence existed that seemed to support her claims. Yet no charges have been filed against the man she accused of trafficking her. The Des Moines Police Department did not respond to an inquiry from The Washington Post into whether investigators looked into her account.
In court this week, Lewis faced up to 20 years in prison. But Porter chose probation to be completed at a women’s facility. He also deferred her judgment, meaning that if she completes probation, her record will be expunged.
“Ms. Lewis, this is the second chance that you’ve asked for,” he said. He added, “I wish you the best of luck.”
Watching from inside the courthouse, Schipper was heartened by the ruling. He told the Des Moines Register that he felt the judge made a fair decision, “giving compassionate justice, and using the system for what it should be designed for.”
But he was stunned at the payment required of her.
“I think that people are in shock that Iowa has this law the way we do regarding the $150,000,” Schipper told the newspaper. “This is a clear example of where it’s completely unjust.”
The law mandates that a person convicted of a felony that results in the death of another person must pay at least $150,000 to the victim’s estate.
Matthew Sheeley, one of Lewis’s lawyers, had argued in court that Brooks was more than 51 percent responsible for his death. Because of that, he said, she should not have to pay. He called the requirement cruel and unusual.
“I don’t believe that the Iowa Legislature intended to require a 15-year-old girl … to pay her rapist’s estate $150,000,” he said.
While acknowledging that Lewis and her supporters would be frustrated, Porter said he had no discretion to waive restitution. The Des Moines Register noted that he cited a 2017 case in which the Iowa Supreme Court ruled it was not unconstitutional to require juveniles found guilty of homicide to make the payment.
“This court is presented with no other option, other than which is dictated by the law of this state,” he said.
After the hearing, Sheeley told told the local NBC affiliate that the judge’s ruling was overall a victory and that restitution was not Lewis’s most important concern. He said she wanted to move on with her life, adding that “she has got her entire life ahead of her. She has all these opportunities ahead of her.”
Schipper, her former teacher, was eager to ease the burden and thrilled that the fundraiser may be able to do so. Lewis’s lawyers told the Register they want to look into the legality of using donated money to pay the restitution.
Robert Rigg, a criminal law professor at Drake University Law School, said it was unclear what steps the court would want Lewis or the fundraiser’s organizers to take to allow the money to cover her restitution payment. He said the organizers were free to gift the money to Lewis, but they may encounter hurdles if they try to make the payment directly from the fund itself.
“I would definitely recommend that her defense counsel get guidance from the court. Then the court could say, ‘This is how we’re going to do this,’ ” Rigg told The Post.
“That way you’ve got a buffer. You’re acting at the direction in a judge, and that way you’re covered,” Rigg said.
After the first $150,000 paid toward the restitution, the fund’s organizer can decide what to do with the rest of the money. Rigg said they could set up a nonprofit corporation to gift the money to Lewis, or create a trust in her name “to be distributed for her health, welfare and education.”
In an earlier interview with The Post, Sheeley and another member of Lewis’s defense team, Paul White, described her as full of limitless potential. She has dreams of becoming a designer, telling her story and advocating for other girls like her.
“I have no doubt in my mind that whatever obstacles are thrown in her path, she’ll step right over them,” Sheeley said. “She is not going to let anything get in the way. In my core, that’s how I feel.”