Nearly two years after 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer was arrested for killing her alleged sex trafficker, supporters across the country and celebrities behind the #MeToo movement are calling for her release - an outpouring of support that prompted the Wisconsin prosecutor in the case to defend his office on Facebook.
Almost 90,000 people had signed a petition asking Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley to drop all charges against Kizer, who is facing life in prison.
Graveley argues that Kizer planned the murder of Randall Volar III, a 34-year-old white man, to steal his BMW. Kizer, now 19, says she was acting in self-defense because Volar, who had been sexually abusing her for nearly two years, attempted to pin her down.
Kizer's case garnered attention earlier in December when The Washington Post published a report detailing the abuse she and other underage black girls experienced at Volar's hands, and how much police and prosecutors knew about it before he was killed.
"This case is appalling," tweeted Alyssa Milano, an actress credited with popularising the #MeToo movement in 2017.
Tarana Burke, the movement's founder, publicised Kizer's story on Instagram. "The case of #ChrystulKizer requires our attention *before* she is convicted and given a life sentence," Burke said.
Milano and Burke were among those who advocated for the release of Cyntoia Brown-Long, a sex trafficking victim who spent 15 years in prison for killing a man who purchased her for sex when she was 16. After being granted clemency by the governor of Tennessee, Brown-Long was released in August, becoming the face of an anti-trafficking movement. The goal: to educate the public that under federal law, no minor can consent to being sold for sex, no matter the circumstances.
In her first op-ed since being released, Brown-Long spoke out on Kizer's behalf, arguing that laws must be changed to protect victims like her.
"Chrystul, and all trafficking survivors, deserve the kind of justice that boldly acknowledges: 'Your life matters, too,' " she wrote in The Post.
Brown-Long criticised a judge's recent ruling declaring that a Wisconsin law designed to protect trafficking victims did not apply to the charges against Kizer. Her attorneys plan to appeal the ruling.
Kizer was charged with arson and first-degree intentional homicide - an offense that carries a mandatory life sentence in Wisconsin - in June 2018. In the legal proceedings that followed, the nature of her connection with Volar became clear. The two met on Backpage, a now-shuttered prostitution website, when Kizer was 16. Volar sexually abused her multiple times and filmed it. Kizer told The Post that Volar also posted her on Backpage, then drove her to hotels to be sexually abused by other men.
"He was a grown-up, and I wasn't," she said. "So I listened."
As Kizer's story spread to other publications, Graveley took to social media to discuss the case - a move uncharacteristic for prosecutors, who are ethically prohibited from making public comments that could influence a judge or jury. Graveley, a Democrat who is up for reelection next year, posted a lengthy statement on his campaign Facebook page.
"I am respectfully asking folks who are interested in the Chrystul Kizer case to reserve judgment until the facts are presented in court at trial," he wrote.
After detailing the evidence against Kizer, Graveley defended the actions of his office, which was investigating Volar in connection with crimes including child sexual assault before he was killed. Documents obtained by The Post show that in February 2018, police arrested Volar, then released him the same day.
Three months passed before police sent their evidence on Volar to Graveley's office. They had found that Volar was abusing approximately a dozen underage black girls, including ones who appeared to be as young as 12 or 13. Still, Volar was not taken into custody. He was killed 12 days later.
Graveley stated on Facebook that a sex crimes prosecutor "was appropriately reviewing the referral involving the investigation of Volar" during that time.
"As District Attorney, I cannot condone vigilante justice," he wrote. "When presented with evidence of premeditated murder, I do not believe it is appropriate for prosecutors to weigh the value of the victim's life."
In an interview, Graveley explained that he felt compelled to write the post because his office received more than 100 calls and social media messages about the case, some of which were "abusive and threatening."
"The reason why something had to be posted to Facebook was because folks in my office were feeling unsafe," he said.
He is not planning to drop the charges against Kizer, no matter how many signatures or celebrity endorsements she receives.
"A prosecutor can't make decisions about criminal cases based on how many people contact the office," he said.
For now, the case is at a standstill until Kizer's public defenders file an appeal, which they plan to do in January. Then, they will learn whether an appeals court will take up the case - a process that could delay the jury trial for months.
For Kizer, that means more time in the Kenosha County Jail. On Christmas, she spoke to her mother Devore Taylor three times. Taylor has spent months trying to rally local activists to help her daughter. Now, their small group is receiving offers of assistance from around the world.
"I think it makes Chrystul feel better just to know that she isn't by herself," Taylor said.
A GoFundMe page that Taylor runs has received more than $17,000 in donations - money she can use to send her daughter snacks, books and credits to use on a tablet provided by the jail. The credits let Kizer listen to music and watch TV. As the new year approached, her mom said, she was watching the Twilight movies to pass the time.