The family of Islan Nettles has waited a long time for justice—it's been nearly three years since her death, and the trial of her accused killer is just underway. Nettles was just 21 years old when she was brutally attacked on August 17, 2013 on the streets of Harlem; she died five days later in the hospital. Now, after 18 months of investigation, New York state believes James Dixon to be her killer.
If you follow the gruesome news trail of trans murder in the US, or if you love someone transgender, or if you are transgender yourself, then you may be familiar with the circumstances in which trans women often die. In the case of Islan Nettles, she was walking with her trans sisters when a group of young men flirtatiously engaged them, as young men sometimes do women. But something happened in between their catcalls and the moment Nettles fell to, and was beat against, the pavement: the men realized she and her friends were transgender. At least, that's the story detailed in a confession written by Dixon that was read aloud by the detective to whom he confessed in 2013.
Thursday morning was day one of Dixon's criminal trial; he was charged with manslaughter in Nettles' death. Despite the fact the state has a strong case against him, Dixon has refused the 12 year plea deal he was offered, preferring to try his luck and exercise his right to a trial; if convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison. On Thursday, assistant district attorney Nicholas Viorst reiterated what he had already made clear in multiple pre-trial hearings: Dixon's confessions include a statement made orally to the investigating detective, two written statements made in the presence of the detective, and another verbal statement recorded on videotape that ADA Viorst himself was present for. Dixon's attorney asked the judge not to allow the filmed confession, as he questioned whether or not it is a confession at all, and worried its release would prejudice potential jurors, who are being selected on Monday, April 4. Judge Daniel Conviser decided to play the video on Friday, April 1, after first watching the video privately in his chambers.
Read More: Why Do Men Kill Trans Women?
The most compelling information revealed on Thursday came during testimony from one of the detectives who interviewed Dixon at the 32nd Precinct in Harlem back in 2013. According to the statement read on the stand by detective Heriberto Vasquez, Dixon was "drinking and smoking" with friends at an apartment in his Harlem building shortly after midnight on August 17, 2013 before heading out to walk to another party several blocks away. As detective Vasquez testified yesterday, Dixon gave two statements to police back in 2013: People's exhibits #24 and #24a. People's exhibit #24 was made on the evening of August 20, when Dixon turned himself in, and people's exhibit #24a was made the following morning.
According to Dixon's statements—which both include his story about partying, but differ after that—as he and his friends walked to the second party, another group of men showed up and informed them the party was dead. In Dixon's first statement, people's #24, he claimed that some of the men in his group began to run, so he did too. He claimed to have fallen and, then, when he got up, he began to beat on the person before him. That person just happened to be Islan Nettles. Vasquez testified that after informing Dixon they did not believe the statement made in people's #24, Dixon gave a second version: people's #24a.
In Dixon's second statement from 2013, he informs police that he and his friends encountered Nettles and two of her friends on the street. At the time, they believed Nettles and her friends to be cisgender women. In this statement, #24a, which detective Vasquez read before Judge Conviser, Dixon refers to Nettles as a "hemale," and one of Dixon's friends eventually yelled "that's a guy"—referring to one of Nettles' friends.
After recounting the confession from memory, Detective Vasquez read #24a: "I asked the one I was talking to [Nettles] if she was a guy. Before she could answer I pushed her away. She pushed me back and that's when I hit him, he fell to the ground and I hit him again [sic]." In people's #24a, Dixon wrote that, a few days prior to the incident with Nettles, he had another experience with a trans woman. "I got fooled by a transgender," Detective Vasquez recited from Dixon's statement. Dixon's statement then suggests that this alleged prior incident may have been the precursor to the attack on Nettles. It may have been "blind fury," Dixon wrote.
According to Dixon's statement, after allegedly beating Nettles against the pavement, he asked her friend, "You want some too?" Nettles' friend responded "no," and Dixon walked home.
Nettles' mother was seated in the hallway outside the courtroom on Thursday, unable to watch the proceedings because she will eventually be called as a witness for the prosecution. People wearing placards featuring Nettles' face on chains around their necks—perhpas family members—were seated in the courtroom among rows of transgender women who either knew Nettles personally, are involved in advocacy in New York, or simply care about other transgender people enough to demonstrate solidarity as her family and the state sought justice in lower Manhattan on Thursday.
Detective Vasquez told the court that a detective from the hate crime task force was present during Dixon's 2013 interview; yet Dixon has not been charged with a hate crime. Meeting the burden of proof to levy a hate crime law in court is difficult: you must prove the crime's motivation beyond a reasonable doubt. Chase Strangio, an ACLU attorney working fiercely against the anti-transgender legislation, told Broadly that although he can understand how hate crimes prosecutions seem symbolically important, sending the message that "black trans life matters"—to the law, and our collective consciousness—his experience with the law has caused him to distrust hate crime statutes in general. "The problem is there really is no such thing as legal prejudice against trans people," he said. "The larger, more important point is that the law does not and will not protect trans people as this case and many others show.
"Perhaps, if we had more robust protections for trans people, it would impact the chances that people like Islan would never get killed in the first place," Strangio said. "Once we are dealing with violence that has already happened, it is hard to look to the legal system for relief."
During a two-hour adjournment on Thursday, which took place before the defense's cross-examination of Detective Vasquez, Alani Houston, a young trans woman of color and one of Nettles' best friends, told me that the attack on her friend occurred three blocks from her home. "When I heard that it was so close to home, it was just staggering to me," she said. Nearly three years later, Houston told me, the pain of Nettles' death is less distinct, but the hurt will never really end.
Houston and Nettles wanted to transition together, but it was Nettles who started first. Houston said that while she was preoccupied with work, Nettles just couldn't wait to start living. They lived their own lives, but saw each other every day, Houston said. She used to work at Harlem United, and when she'd walked down W. 125th St., by the H&M where Nettles worked, they'd see each other, or they'd run into each other on the street. "She would have her dog with her and be like, 'Hey sis!' Hugs and kisses,'" Houston said.
Houston wasn't there when her friend was killed, and she's stopped speaking with the women who were, because she can't wrap her mind around the horror that happened. Because she wasn't there, she'll never know for sure, but part of her feels these other women should have been able to stop this terrible crime from happening, to have done something. However, one of those women recently told Houston there was nothing they could do. "I just don't understand it," she told me, shaking her head thinking about her friend's stolen life. "I just don't really understand what really happened that night."
I asked her what she believes.
"I think it was a hate crime," Houston said. She knows what men are like. Gesturing to me, she said that we, as trans women, all know how men really are. She's certain that, had Dixon's friends not been present, the attack he's accused of would not have occurred. Houston's had more than one insecure guy get with her privately, and then ignore her in public. "To society, it's almost like if a guy's attracted to a trans girl, their manhood is on the line."
Vasquez's cross-examination was slow, filled with thoughtful but fruitless pauses, and mirrored much of the prosecution's prior questioning. Dixon's attorney asked questions about the interview between Detective Vasquez and his client, but it wasn't clear what point he was trying to make. "At some point the interview ends, right?" He asked. "Yes," Vasquez responded.
There were many questions regarding procedure and protocol: whether or not Dixon was read his rights, if he was handcuffed, if he was asked questions in the police car prior to being interviewed at the station, if he slept between making his first and second statements to police, if he was given water and food. At one point, Dixon's attorney suggested to the judge that one court document may be inadmissible because it was not notarized, and, therefore cannot be verified as actually belonging to his client. All of this may suggest that Dixon's defense will attempt to rely on law enforcement's legal obligations in the handling and treatment of Dixon—a defense based on technicality.
After Vasquez's cross-examination, the ADA and Dixon's defense discussed other issues with the Judge before court adjourned for the day. The ADA mentioned that Nettles' mother will be testifying, pointing out that the defense may be concerned about her testimony incurring excessive sympathy from the jury. To this point, ADA Viorst assured the judge that her testimony is relevant; Nettles' mother will speak to the condition of her child in the hospital after the attack, during the days she was kept breathing before being taken off life support due to brain death. ADA Viorst also mentioned photographs taken of Nettles after the attack, images he intends to show the jury. Viorst told Judge Conviser that he recognizes "the concern of prejudice if the photos are too grim." The injuries in this case are brutal, he explained, assuring the judge he would keep their use to a minimum.
The trial will begin after Jury selection, which takes place on April 4; ADA Viorst informed the judge he believes he'll need just seven days to make his case. Broadly will be covering the events as they unfold.
In the courthouse, which was quiet after everyone else had left, I recalled something Houston had said several hours earlier. "To be honest with you, I feel like to beat someone to death, it means you needed to prove something to those other guys who you were with. Like, you needed to prove, like, 'I'm a real man.'"