From Rape to Restitution- A Look at Iowa’s Death Restitution Statute

By now much of the nation has heard of Pieper Lewis and many of those people are scratching their heads wondering how this abandoned juvenile went from being forced into sex trafficking and raped for $50 worth of marijuana to having to pay the family of her now deceased rapist $150,000. The simple answer is because she plead guilty to a felony which caused the death of another person pursuant to Iowa Code Section 910.3B.   However, that simple answer is unsettling given the nature of Piper’s case and is causing many, including her lawyers, to question the applicability of that law.

Before diving into the unsettling nature of Ms. Lewis’ restitution requirement, it is important to understand the different types of restitution in Iowa and the purposes they serve.  Restitution for criminal acts is covered in Iowa Code Chapter 910 and can be broken down into four different categories.  Category A restitution includes items such as fines, penalties, and surcharges.  Category B restitution includes all other forms of restitution such as payments to law enforcement, anti-crime organizations, crime victim compensation program reimbursements, payments to public agencies, court costs, court appointed attorney fees, and most importantly “expenditures paid on behalf of the victim resulting from the offender’s criminal activities.”  The third form of restitution is called “pecuniary damages” and includes any amounts payable to the “victim” that are not paid by an insurer which the “victim” would be entitled to recover in a civil case stemming from the same actions of the offender.  However, pecuniary damages excludes pain and suffering, punitive damages, mental anguish, or loss of consortium.

The fourth category, and the head scratcher for Ms. Lewis, is loosely known as “death restitution.”  This type of restitution is required “in all criminal cases in which the offender is convicted of a felony in which the act or acts committed by the offender caused the death of another person,” and is ordered in addition to any other forms of restitution.  The Iowa Supreme Court, has determined that this restitution is mandatory and judges are left without discretion to impose anything less than $150,000 payable to the “victim’s” estate or heirs. It is not dischargeable in bankruptcy and it follows the person as a judgment lien attaching to their assets, credit rating, and affecting the ability to obtain loans until it is discharged.

This law was enacted in 1997 and has withstood a barrage of legal attacks since its inception.  The Iowa Supreme Court has concluded that the is Constitutionally sound and does not violate due process, double jeopardy, excessive fine protections.  More recently however, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that imposition of the “death restitution” was punitive in nature which requires the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender’s felonious acts caused the death of another unless the offender admitted this fact in a guilty plea.  See State v. Davison, 973 N.W.2d 276 (Iowa 2022).

Pieper Lewis entered a guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury assault.  The plea to voluntary manslaughter is a felony which required her to admit that she “caused the death of another person” by “acting solely as the result of a sudden violent, and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation..”  In order to commit this offense Ms. Lewis had to be subjected to “serious provocation” which in her case was the act of being raped by the decedent. If the decedent’s actions of raping Ms. Lewis contributed to his death then why should his family be entitled to restitution?  This is the question creating all of the national buzz about this case because seems absurd.

In Iowa judges have the ability and legal responsibility to prevent the application of a law that produces an absurd result.  This is known as the absurdity doctrine.  See Brakke v. Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources, 897 N.W.2d 522 (Iowa 2017).  Although the doctrine is to be used sparingly and in the most extreme cases,  it is hard to image a scenario where the application of a law would produce a more absurd result than to require the victim of a rape to pay the family of the rapist when the rape was a contributing factor leading to the rapist’s demise.  Thus, the absurdity doctrine should be applied to preclude the application of the death restitution in Ms. Lewis’ case in order to prevent this gross misjustice.

It is also reasonable to question whether the decedent is a “victim” which is a prerequisite to triggering “death restitution” as the statute requires payment to the “victim’s estate” or the “victim’s heirs at law.”   A victim is defined as “any person who has suffered pecuniary damages as a result of the offender’s criminal activities.” As discussed above, it is arguable that the decedent’s actions were the “result” of his own actions.  It is also reasonable to question what pecuniary damages the decedent suffered thereby making him a “victim.”  Again, the “absurdity doctrine” should prevent the imposition of the “death restitution” as it is hard to imagine that the legislature intended a person who suffers his demise at the hands of the person he raped to be a “victim.”

Finally, it is important to consider whether a deferred judgment is a “conviction” for purposes of imposing the “death restitution.”  In State v. Kluesner, 389 N.W.2d 370, 372-73 (Iowa 1986), the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that a deferred judgment does trigger the general restitution statutes but the court has not considered whether  a deferred judgement triggers the “death restitution” statute.  The main consideration is whether the imposition of “death restitution” is intended as punishment or to protect the public.  This is because the word “conviction” has a narrow meaning if the statute is used to enhance punishment and a broader meaning where the statute is intended to protect the public.  In light of the Davison decision, it appears that the Iowa Supreme Court has considered the death restitution statute to be punitive thereby requiring a narrow interpretation of the word “conviction” and precluding the imposition of the “death restitution.”

In summary, aside from leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the public and the thousands of people who have contributed to her Go Fund Me campaign, imposition of the death restitution in Ms. Lewis’ case seems to be at odds with the legislative intent of the statute and the goals the legislature sought to accomplish.  It also appears, that given punitive nature of the statute, it should not be imposed when a person receives a deferred judgment.  To that end, the Iowa Legislature should consider either (1) changing this statute to give judges discretion on whether to impose this restitution, (2) change the statue to preclude application of the statute if the decedent’s actions were a contributing factor to the persons death, (3) make the statute inapplicable to juvenile offenders, and/or (4) prevent application of the statute to someone who receives a deferred judgment.

In my two decades of practicing law, I have encountered many people accused of offenses that either did, or might have, resulted in application of this statute and they had insufficient insurance to cover the minimum $150,000.  People should strongly consider getting sufficient insurance coverage so that in the unfortunate event they find themselves faced with the applicability of this statute, they can offset it with an insurance payment.

This statute had little to no recognition until Ms. Lewis’ case hit mainstream media.  Only time will tell if Ms. Lewis will be relieved of her obligation to pay the death restitution. Suffice it to say however, that at the very least she has generated a significant amount of critique about this once obscure law.  Her case highlights why judges need to have discretion over sentencing matters and why there should be a focus on this statute by the Iowa Legislature this year.  Hopefully, this will generate the restructuring that this statute so strongly deserves.