Justice Delayed, Denied, and Disgraceful

by Guest Contributor Monica Roberts

It seems that no matter where we live or what decade we’re talking about, when the justice system concerns transwomen of color, justice is delayed, denied, and disgraceful.

Back in 1998, William Palmer, the man who killed Chanelle Pickett in Boston was given a 2 1/2 year sentence with 6 months suspended, and 5 years probation. Never mind the fact that Palmer strangled Pickett, then slept for six hours next to Chanelle’s lifeless body lying beside his bed before he turned himself in. The judge presiding over the case commented bitterly to the defendant at the time “Mr. Palmer should kiss the ground the defense counsel walks on.”

On August 12, 2002 Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis die in a hail of bullets on the same southeast Washington DC street corner that Tyra Hunter died due to EMT neglect. As of this writing there’s not only been no arrest, but the execution style killings aren’t even classified as a hate crime.

Never mind the fact that rumors in the community persist that the trigger men who executed the grisly crime are guys who picked up the two transwomen on dates and found out their transgender status after the fact.

Tiffany Berry’s killer, DeAndre Blake, walked the streets of Memphis, TN as a free man for almost two years after being released on a ridiculously low $20,000 bond. Blake admitted he had killed Berry on February 9, 2006 because he did not like the way she had “touched” him. He was arrested last month for killing his own two year old daughter.

Even across The Pond, the recent trial of 18 year old Shanniel Hyatt for the murder of Kellie Telesford had the same depressing results.

So what’s causing these miscarriages of justice?

For starters, we’ve always had the situation in this country in which the lives of people of color aren’t as valued as the life a white male or female. Toss transgender status into that mix, and it’s a foul recipe for injustice.

Add to this recipe for injustice trans panic defenses. What the defendant will do is claim for example, that when they discovered that the woman they’re with is discovered to be transgender, it causes them to become so enraged that they committed the crime they ordinarily wouldn’t have done and were not of sound mind and body when they did it.

In a nutshell, they’re trying to blame the victim and use the sensationalist nature of transgender issues against them in order to get away with murder.

And too many times it works.

You can also add to the injustice stew the fact that transwomen of color are disproportionately saddled with ‘exotic’ hypersexual images. The Shanniel Hyatt defense team seized on that to suggest that Telesford died as the result of a kinky sex game.

The ludicrous assertion that transpeople are trying to trick people is also a factor playing into these carriages of injustice. We’ll hear that the murdered transwoman was trying to ‘deceive’ someone, and therefore the defendant was justified in killing them after discovering the ‘deception’.

Crimes committed against us should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. If they aren’t, it sends the message that it’s open season on transgender people and you can kill us with a slap on the wrist.

But as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around. A murderer you set free in a transgender case could one day take the life of one of your loved ones as the Berry case painfully pointed out.

These are just a few examples of how these factors add up to justice delayed, denied and with a disgraceful stench attached to it.

So what do we do to combat it?

The judge in the Angie Zapata case is off to a good start. He not only denied the attempts of Allen Andrade’s defense lawyers to reduce the charges, the bias crime one is sticking, too. We can only hope the positive trends continue and that Angie’s family receives justice.

Eliminating the ‘trans panic’ defense would help as well. Making prosecuting attorneys aware of it so that they can come up with strategies to eviscerate it would also be helpful while we push for legislation that would ban them as the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act does in California.

The great civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph once stated, “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

Transgender people are the folks most in need of civil rights protection. We need the traditional advocates of justice in minority communities such as LULAC and the NAACP to step up and forcefully advocate for transgender people of color. It would send the message to John P. Public, the potential jury pool members, that transgender citizens are not only valuable members of society but we are somebody’s brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin and friend.

Once people begin to realize that we’re human beings with hopes, dreams and lives like them, hopefully we’ll begin to see less cases of justice delayed, denied and disgraceful when it comes to transpeople of color and more cases in which justice is served.

Edited: It disgusts me that I have to write this note, but I do. I am not approving any comments based on assumptions about the murders. Of the four murders referenced in this piece, only one refers to “touching” and it is not clear if this was a sexual touch or a regular brushing past. If you read the links, you would see that the transpanic defense rings hollow. In the very first link referenced in the post, you see that the perpetrator knew exactly what he was getting into:

Then came the fateful meeting at Playland with William Palmer, a 34 year old computer programmer. Prior to that November 20 night, according to Newsweekly, Chanelle told Natoyear Sherarrion, her friend of eight years, that she had been having nightmares that someone was going to hurt her. They were similar to the fears that another transmurder victim, Amanda Milan would express five years later.

Playland, which opened in 1937 was one of Boston’s original gay bars. Until it closed in 1998 it was located in the Combat Zone on Essex Street and had evolved to include a multicultural crowd. While William Palmer tried to deny that he knew Chanelle was transsexual, or that he enjoys the company of transsexuals, he’s as familiar to the Boston transgender community that frequented the bar as Norm from Cheers was. He not only knew what and who a transsexual was, he frequently dated them.

Chanelle and Palmer had been seeing each other for some time and they had met at Playland on a number of occasions. Friends say that she really liked Palmer and wanted to have a more serious relationship with him. Palmer had written a letter to Chanelle not only expressing his affection for her, but had promised to help her get back on her feet and to take care of her.

On this particular night Chanelle, Gabrielle and Palmer went to the twins Chelsea area apartment first after leaving Playland and spent 90 minutes trying to convince them to have a three way with him. For some reason Chanelle agreed to go with Palmer to his home in Watertown, MA where he strangled her to death in the early morning hours on November 20. Palmer slept for six hours with Chanelle’s dead body lying beside his bed before he turned himself in to a lawyer who informed the police.

We are not discussing transgender relationships and dating rituals. We are discussing why society is so willing to turn the other way when a transgender individual is murdered, especially when that person is of color. I am not entertaining any justifications on the trans panic defense. I understand that we all come to Racialicious to talk about race, not transgender issues. And I understand that some people may not be comfortable with discussing transgender issues.

But I asked Monica to write here because she is a person of color. Her trans status does not erase that. And she is discussing an issue that occurs in her community, but is also a part of our own.

Many transgendered people are people of color.

And we need to listen to what they are saying. – LDP

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Update 2
: Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Harney |

Holly @Feministe posted this about the trans panic defense:

    Cara’s last post raises something extremely important that we should all be aware of:

    “Deception” is the commonly told and commonly believed story in cases like this, but further investigation and examination of the facts has OFTEN suggested it’s a smokescreen.

    Lisa links to a couple examples, and there are more. Seriously, don’t let anyone sell you the usual line that “oh, she tricked him and then he freaked out and killed her.” For one thing, even if that was the case, the appropriate reaction is not to kill someone. But more importantly, it’s often totally fabricated. But everyone just believes it because it’s so “plausible.” It’s the entire audience of listeners to these stories that need to wise up. Tell your friends. Here are some important points:

    1) in quite a few of these cases, witnesses, friends, and continued investigation have attested that the murderers had an ongoing relationship with the victim, to the extent that it was quite unlikely they didn’t know about their trans status;

    2) trans women, even young trans women, are not total fucking idiots. Especially the ones who have experience, who lived to see adulthood and have had to survive on the streets. Trans women know the risks associated with sex partners who aren’t aware of our status. Trans women are, by and large, experts at judging and negotiating this kind of situation. Part of the reason many community advocates think the ongoing wave of “trans panic” crimes involve bogus stories is that most trans women, sex workers included, make sure that potential sex partners are not confused as hell about what’s going on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t eliminate the unpredictable violent psychopaths of the world.

    3) The victims of these murders are DEAD and cannot tell their side of the story. Seriously — Andrade killed her, he confessed it. He knows what kind of story is likely to elicit the most sympathy from other straight guys, and he’s telling it. He even included details about “she wouldn’t let me touch her, but she gave me a blow job.” This whole scenario is a classic myth — which doesn’t mean it never happens, but when the murderer is caught red-handed and then proceeds to give the most “sympathetic sob story,” why the hell does everyone believe him? Because most people find it impossible to identify with the victim, and far too easy to identify with the killer of a “thing.”This needs to change, but the dead cannot speak for themselves, cannot persuade people to empathize and listen. It’s up to the rest of us.

    As for the whole “hate crime” crap, it plays into people’s ridiculous idea of what motivates other types of hate crimes as well. They’re thinking of cold-blooded strategizing Klansmen, not killers who freak out because they have emotional and mental problems related to race, or gender, or sexuality. But of course a lot of feelings of irrational hatred — for any group of people — are tied up with the killer’s own twisted, distorted feelings about all of that and how they see themselves fitting into the world. What’s truly disgusting is that people are just buying Andrade’s classic story, regardless of whether it’s true or not, and many patterns from similar cases in the past suggest it’s likely not true.

For that matter, the post that Holly responded to says: There’s no reason to use language like “duped” and “fooled” unless you’re looking for a reason to excuse murder.

But yes: I won’t say that trans panic doesn’t happen, but it’s irrelevant. Discovering that someone you’re sexually interested in wasn’t born as the sex you assumed she was is not her fault – it’s your own assumption that people are cis until proven otherwise. Someone who actually does kill a woman because he discovers she’s trans is not committing an excusable, understandable, act. He killed a woman. Not “He killed a woman, but-” No, just stop. You don’t have to go any further. He’s a murderer, anything said after that point is an excuse.