After Yet Another Trans* Woman’s Murder, Change Is Coming for Hate Crime Sentencing in DC

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Last year Deoni Jones was stabbed to death at a bus stop. At her vigil, it was brought to everyone’s attention that Washington D.C. had a huge problem:

Several attendees from the LGBT community sadly noted that the spot where Jones was killed is a little more than a mile from where 23-year-old transgender woman Lashai Mclean was gunned down in July 2011; five blocks from the intersection where transgender woman Tyra Hunter died after being refused medical treatment in 1995 by emergency personnel after a car accident; and where two other transgender women, Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis, were shot to death in 2002.

This year, at her vigil, her family asked some tough questions about why the murder was not prosecuted as a hate crime. And Mayor Vincent Gray and his Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs actually responded to those questions.

Mayor Gray answered very eloquently with assurances that he would ask for clarity on this particular case:

“I think there ought to be a clear indication of why or why not this is viewed or not viewed as a hate crime,” Gray said. “The family clearly is not satisfied. And I think we all owe it to them to give a clear explanation over why the direction of the case is proceeding the way it is.”

But he also announced a partnership between the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs and the US Attorney’s Office, a partnership that will “enhance USAO’s ability to bring criminals to justice in cases where hate or bias might have been a factor in a crime committed against an individual from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.”

“While this partnership will not bring Deoni back, it will give the LGBT community more power to affect the sentences handed down to violent criminals, helping to keep them off our streets,” Mayor Gray said.

Through this partnership, the two offices will be soliciting Community Impact Statements from LGBT community members in cases where hate or bias on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender presentation was a stated part of the motive. In other words, they’re collecting stories from hate crime victims and their families, and also from the surrounding community.  And in selected situations, these statements will be solicited even in cases not categorized as hate crimes. Victim impact statements are generally used in the sentencing phase of a trial, after a criminal is convicted of a violent crime. “The presiding judge will take these Community Impact Statements into account when determining the severity and length of a violent perpetuator’s sentence.”

Victim impact statements are nothing new. They’re par for the course, actually, in trials where violent crime is concerned. So I’m a little torn: on the one hand, it seems like an emphasis on something that already happens. A public relations move, almost. But the expansion to how a hate crime affect a community is new for the D.C. area, as is the focus on the LGBT community and the problems LGBT individuals faces when dealing with government. I can’t find a ton of other Offices of GLBT Affairs that aren’t part of universities – it’s just not something a city usually has in the United States.  Washington D.C. also has a dedicated police unit, the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, to act on crimes that appear to be motivated by hatred. Sometimes that’s enormously helpful when it comes to affecting change: people watching. People focusing on a problem, recognizing it as a problem. This makes me hugely optimistic for the future of D.C. in protecting the LGBT community.

At the same time, this new partnership seems to ignore intersectionality. Most of the murders of transgender women in D.C. are perpetrated against women of color. In fact, racially motivated hate crimes in D.C. doubled in one year. Doubled. So while it’s really wonderful to have this problem come into focus, when D.C. has clearly been a hostile environment for the transgender community from the 90′s on up, it may be problematic to shunt aside the other hate crime issues Washington D.C. has. One thing, one bureau, one partnership or policy, can’t be everything to everyone. And it’s certainly a step in the right direction, with hopefully plenty more steps to follow.

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Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 255 articles for us.

8 Comments

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    What many people tend to overlook in their rush to assign a bias tag to an assault (whether fatal or not) is that PROVING such bias adds an infinitely larger burden to the prosecution and opens the door to a defendant walking on the charge. JUST because someone is a minority (of any type) and is attacked does NOT mean it was a bias crime.

    In this instance, there is a murder. The finite judicial resources would be best used to prosecute the easier offense to prove up, specifically the homicide. It also serves to limit the basis upon which an appeal may be undertaken. Further, given that murder is generally a first-degree offense, adding a bias paragraph gains little in sentencing.

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      You can, as a jury, convict someone of murder and not of hate crime charges. I agree sort of that it can make it a little easier to instill doubt, but first of all, someone can walk on murder charges, and second of all, yes, it may be true that not EVERY assault on a minority is due to that fact, but if this were a college age cis white gay person can you imagine not even thinking about that as a motivation?

      There’s a bigger problem at hand wherein most of the time trans women’s deaths are rarely remembered, much less recognized as the systematic killing of trans people. Which I’m sorry, but there is not an ounce of doubt in me that this was a hate-related crime. There may have been other factors involved but it simply seems implausible to me that there was no aspect of this that had to do with fear or anger.

      Also, “murder in the first degree” is premeditated murder. Most likely this will be prosecuted as a crime of passion. There are lots of kinds of murder and lots of sentencing terms: you can murder a child and get as little as 18 months for it (my mother works in child abuse system) if it’s ruled that it was manslaughter. Adding a hate crime to the sentencing DOES add to it because it adds to the severity of the sentencing.

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        “There’s a bigger problem at hand wherein most of the time trans women’s deaths are rarely remembered, much less recognized as the systematic killing of trans people.”

        The deaths of MOST murder victims are rarely remembered. That is a sad truism of American society. Period. And it does not matter one whit what YOU might believe but rather it matters what a prosecutor can PROVE beyond a reasonable doubt. Gut feelings don’t win cases but they can damned sure get a verdict reversed and remanded with instructions from the appellate court (that is, if the Court does not just toss the verdict and enter a finding of not guilty).

        Certainly sentences can run the gamut, but it is equally true that the facts of those different degrees of homicide run the gamut as well. Working in the criminal realm, I have seen that since the 80′s. I have ALSO seen the appellate courts setting aside more and more prosecutions that were based in some manner upon ‘thought’ crimes (ie. the so-called bias issues).

        It is far simpler all the way around to prosecute the PROVABLE crime, specifically the death that occurred. When you try and prove up what someone was thinking, you inevitably are going to trial and have a much greater chance of a defendant walking. This holds true no matter what bias one seeks to claim as the motivation for the action.

        Hate crime/bias enhancements create special exception carve-outs in the law and you cease to have equal treatment of ALL defendants under the law. Murder is murder IMO.

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          MIchelle, while I understand your desire for equal treatment under the law, the reality is, that just doesn’t happen. It’s only been very recently that any crimes against trans people were considered hate crimes (the first was Angie Zapata in 2009). There have only been a three or four cases where a hate crime addendum has been added to trans murders. Moreover, until very recently, the vast majority of murders of trans people were never solved or brought to trial. There is still a huge backlog of unsolved murders of trans women which surpasses the national averages for unsolved murders. It’s very clear that in a lot of jurisdictions, the murders of trans women don’t warrant a lot of effort by local police officials. Why is this… perhaps prosecutors and police consider these women to be disposable? They’re overwhelmingly trans women of color and a good percentage of them (but not all) are sex workers. They form the group with the highest murder rate in the nation. Doesn’t this deserve some social comment? Hate crime isn’t a big deal… it really doesn’t add an awful lot to sentences (usually a year or two at most). But it is a symbolic statement how this group has been uniquely targeted for being who they are… their very act of existing has marked them as a target.

          And defendants don’t walk because the hate aspect isn’t proven… it might change their ultimate sentence, but the hate crime addendum is always a separate aspect to the charges and not a reason for the trial.

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      The hate crime is an enhancer. By definition it exists to add to the sentence. It would be a horribly bungled prosecution that loses the case because it loses on the hate crime charge.

      My criticism of hate crime laws always was, and remains, that it isn’t responsive to the bias involved. People who physically harm and kill others because of bias exist, but they are outliers in the systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that pervade American society and other societies. It’s just as easy for people to keep on ignoring trans women of color’s health care needs and denying their humanity whether or not a few troubled individuals spend a decade longer feeding the prison-industrial complex. Couple this with limited empirical evidence of a relationship between increased sentencing and deterrence, and I can’t be too excited about hate crime laws.

      I’ve heard the arguments that hate crime laws correspond to the progressiveness of the government that passes them, but that’s no more an argument for passing them than saying that hate crime laws need to be passed simply because they can be passed. Wake me up when some more laws banning discrimination against trans* people in public assistance, employment, and insurance are passed.

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    Thanks for this article, Ali, awesome analysis, and just for letting us know about it in general.
    Keep getting into arguments with my very nice, but very conservative friend about issues like this. He says hate crimes shouldn’t even be a thing, because they are just “othering” victims and making them stand out from other crimes. Always nice to have someone else’s words to throw back at him when my own are too tangled up in my head.

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