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The Islan Nettles killing: What the trial means to a transgender community anxious for a reckoning

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Update: James Dixon pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Monday in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence. As a result of the plea bargain, the trial will not go forward. The original post is below.

Islan Nettles was just walking down the street moments before her life came to a brutal halt.

She and two friends, also transgender women, were making their way along a street in New York’s Harlem in 2013 when they encountered a group of around seven men. The two parties soon got into a dispute, according to police reports, and Nettles was slammed to the ground.

A series of relentless blows left the 21-year-old African American comatose, her face battered beyond recognition. The following week, she died.

Immediately, reports swirled about the circumstances of Nettles’s slaying — allegedly, the violence had begun after the men learned she was transgender, and homophobic slurs were uttered as she crumpled to the ground — and transgender activists were galvanized.

It appeared that, once again, another transgender woman of color had been targeted, this time to fatal effect. For all the transgender women who had long feared the demise that Nettles suffered, her death confirmed what they already knew: that their identities meant security was far from assured.

“Islan isn’t the first death of a transgender woman of color, and she’s not going to be the last,” transgender writer and activist Janet Mock told Out Magazine. “I’m at risk every day myself just walking the streets of New York City. We all are.”

More than two and a half years since Nettles was beaten to death, the case against her accused killer is finally going to trial. Jury selection begins on Monday, as the transgender community awaits what they see as an overdue reckoning for attacks against all transgender women of color.

At a rally outside of the courtroom last Thursday, LGBT advocate Lala Zannell told NBC that the trial will reverberate beyond this one case.

“To me, it’s more than just a verdict,” she said. “It’s about putting visibility out there that New Yorkers aren’t going to stand for folks doing violence against us.”

Transgender killings on the rise: ‘This is just so crazy’

This hope speaks to the heartrending irony of progress for transgender women in recent years. As their experiences garnered unprecedented attention through the likes of actress Laverne Cox and former athlete Caitlyn Jenner, they were also being killed in numbers greater than ever before.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs told the Associated Press that last year saw the highest recorded tally of murders of transgender or gender-nonconforming people. In November, the count was 22 — nearly double last year’s 12 and 2013’s 13.

Alicia Garza, who coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” called the spate of violence against black transgender people “an incredible epidemic.”

In the #prideParade today with #DoloresNettles mother of Islan Nettles. JUSTICE FOR ISLAN NETTLES

Posted by Laverne Cox on Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, told the AP that “there’s a sense [among perpetrators] of transgender people being less than human.”

For supporters of Nettles, this sentiment seemed to be compounded in the slow pace at which her case was investigated.

“Why didn’t a detective come to the hospital?” Nettles’s mother, Delores Nettles, said through a megaphone at a protest in 2014. “A social worker there had to call the DA’s office. I said to them, ‘Half of my child’s brain is hanging out of her head and you can’t tell me anything?'”

A 20-year-old Harlem man who was present at the beating, Paris Wilson, was arrested shortly after the event, but charges against him were dropped months later. It wasn’t until last March that James Dixon, 25, was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

His trial began last week with a hearing on a taped confession.

In the recording, which was played in court, Dixon told police officers that he had succumbed to “a blind fury” after his friends started teasing him for flirting with a transgender woman.

“I just remember lashing out,” he said in the confession, according to the New York Times.

Dixon said he and his friends had been drinking that night, and were headed to a party uptown. Then he encountered Nettles and her friends, and crossed the street to talk to Nettles without realizing that she was transgender.

“I remember asking her what is her name, where are you from,” Dixon told authorities. “That’s how I roll up.” His friends started mocking him, saying, “That’s a guy,” and Dixon said he was angered because “They were clowning me.”

He said something similar had happened days before, when he inadvertently flirted with two transgender women and was ridiculed by his friends.

While Dixon had turned himself in and volunteered this confession three days after the beating, police were initially skeptical of his sometimes contradictory accounts, the Times reported. They worried the confession was false. His lawyer argued that the confession was not, indeed a real confession, and unsuccessfully sought to have it suppressed, fearing that its release would prejudice potential jurors, according to VICE’s Broadly.

Dixon’s actions since he was charged last year, two years after he first confessed, have also contradicted his statements at the time.

According to news reports, Dixon opted to go to trial thinking he might get a better result than he could from a plea bargain. He has pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter and related charges, and told DNAinfo shortly after his arrest that he wasn’t even at the attack.

“I’m really sorry for the family’s loss, but they got the wrong guy,” Dixon said. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

According to Dixon, he was back at his aunt’s house by midnight. Prosecutors say the beating took place at 12:20 a.m.

“I can tell the difference between a man and a woman,” Dixon said. “I don’t have anything against gay people or transgender people…I don’t just go pick fights with random people I don’t know. That’s not me.”

In his confession, Dixon also denied hurling gay slurs at Nettles as she was beaten.

Nettles’s mom, Delores, and trans activists had called on Dixon to be charged with a hate crime to no avail. Lourdes Hunter, the director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, told the Times that the long delay in bringing charges, the fact that he was charged with manslaughter as opposed to murder, and the absence of hate crime charges indicated that police consider transgender killings a low priority.

“Really this was murder,” Hunter said. “He intentionally pummeled her to death,” and the only motive that has been suggested is her sexual orientation.

Nettles’s friends and family told the Times that she had just started going public with her gender identity when she was killed.

Following years of poverty, Nettles had gotten a job at H&M, was starting her own fashion line and had moved into her own apartment.

“She was finally going to start living her life,” Daequan Andino, a friend and fashion mentor, told the Times. “Every time I saw her in the street, I was like, ‘Girl, you are doing it.'”

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