Bill might change restitution for people who kill their abusers

By: - February 9, 2023 3:11 pm

Senate legislation would give judges more discretion in ordering restitution in criminal cases. (Photo by krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images)

A Iowa Senate subcommittee advanced a bill Thursday that would give judges more leeway in ordering criminal defendants to pay restitution if they killed someone who committed a crime against them.

Senate Study Bill 1069 gained preliminary approval from the three-person judiciary subcommittee with the expectation that it will be amended.

The new legislation is a direct response to the first-degree murder case of a Des Moines teenager who said she was a victim of sex trafficking in 2020 and killed a man who sexually assaulted her.

Pieper Lewis, now 18, pleaded guilty last year to felony voluntary manslaughter and willful injury and received a deferred judgment and probation, according to court records. However, a judge said he was bound by Iowa law to require Lewis to pay $150,000 to the family of the man she killed.

Lewis was 15 at the time of the killing. She challenged the restitution order, and the case drew significant public attention and outrage.

“When this incident happened in Polk County, I really received a lot of emails,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who introduced the bill with help from Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines.

Zaun added: “What our intention was, is to solve that particular situation.”

The problem, according to prosecutors who attended the subcommittee hearing, is that the bill lacks the specifics needed to meet that goal.

Under current law, those who are convicted of a crime that resulted in someone’s death must pay the victim’s heirs at least $150,000. The new bill would make the restitution optional and would allow judges to “consider any criminal offenses committed by the victim against the offender.”

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull said he supports giving judges more discretion for those decisions but that the legislation contains no guidance on how to determine whether someone like Lewis was also a victim.

“At the time we get to sentencing, then are we going to have, in essence, a mini trial where the defense counsel is now going to try to prove their client was the victim of an offense?” Bull said.

Other criminal justice advocates suggested modifications to limit the types of crimes that should be considered exculpatory for restitution.

“The fact that it says it can be any crime — that seems a little broad,” said Lisa Davis-Cook, who represents the Iowa Association for Justice. “So while we absolutely believe in the concept and understand the case where this came about, we do agree that it probably needs to be tightened up a little bit to make sure that there aren’t any unintended consequences that we’re not thinking about.”

The senators said they would use feedback from prosecutors, victims’ advocates and others to guide their modifications of the bill as it advances through the legislative process.

“I think we all agree with the spirit of the legislation,” Boulton said. “Now it’s a matter of making sure that if we’re going to pass something, it’s workable.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.