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Activists Rally as Accused Killer of Young Trans Woman Refuses Plea Deal

In August 2013, 21-year-old Islan Nettles died from injuries she sustained after she was brutalized in the streets of Harlem. In a pre-trial hearing this week, the man charged with the assault refused his last chance at a plea bargain—despite multiple...
March 18, 2016, 2:35pm
Photos by Leah James

In August of 2013, a 21-year-old transgender woman named Islan Nettles was violently beaten while walking with her friends down the streets of Manhattan. She later died of her injuries. Nettles was with two other trans girls when, according to the NY Daily News, a group of young men began catcalling them. It's a horrible, classic story for trans women: When the group realized the women were trans, (at least) one man became violent. James Dixon was indicted for her death on March 4, 2015. A little over a year later, at a hearing on March 17, 2016, Dixon rejected his final opportunity to accept a plea deal of 12 years for the crime of manslaughter. At the hearing yesterday, Dixon's attorney informed the court that his client "would like to exercise his right to go to trial."


Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Viorst made a statement to the court, expressing that though this case has not met the requirements needed to qualify as a hate crime, it would never have occurred were Nettles not transgender. This point hits a nerve, due to its similarity to the horrific string of trans killings in recent years. During a 2015 Broadly investigation on transgender violence, it became clear that the murders of trans women are rarely categorized as hate crimes.

Loren, a trans activist, rallying outside the court on Thursday

The DA presented a summary of the evidence the state intends to present should the case against Dixon go to trial. His extensive list included testimony from as many as 17 witnesses, eight verbal or written confessions made immediately after the crime and in the years since, including those given to both the judge and the DA himself, as well as medical examiner testimony to the severity of the attack against Nettles: The bone of her skull shattered, her brain was injured, and she was put on life support before dying in the hospital.

Read More: Why Do Men Kill Trans Women?

The state is seeking a sentence of 17 years, but Judge Robert Stolz offered 12 if Dixon would plead guilty. After Dixon's attorney made it clear that the plea bargain would not be accepted, Stolz reiterated the strength of the prosecution's case against Dixon, reminding him that should he be found guilty, the sentence will likely be closer to the 25-year maximum. The trial has been scheduled to begin on March 30, 2016, though it isn't clear whether Judge Stolz will transfer the case to another judge due to scheduling concerns (he'll be out of New York City in mid-April, giving the prosecution just two weeks to make their case).

Activist Victoria Cruz

A transgender activist named Jennifer Lopez organized a rally outside the court on Thursday morning. She planned for more than one hundred people to gather—but when I arrived at the courthouse, she was seated alone, cell phone in hand. This isn't the first rally she's organized to raise community awareness around violent crimes against trans women, but it can be hard to translate online supporters of transgender justice into real action. The hundred she hoped for did not show up, but it wasn't long before several other activists joined her, appearing one by one from the anonymous stream of New York foot traffic. "If we show solidarity with Islan Nettles, then they're more apt to give a higher sentence to James Dixon," Lopez explained.

A trans woman named Victoria Cruz wore three pins on her chest. One for Islan Nettles, which was given to all those in attendance at the start of the court hearings one year ago; one for Marsha P. Johnson, whom Cruz calls the "Rosa Parks of our community"; and one for herself that reads: "I'm just me."

Placing her cane beside her, Cruz took a seat where Lopez had been and drank from a cup of hot coffee. She's been at the court for every hearing since Dixon was indicted last year. "The community should stand together and fight for rights and justice," she said. "Let's face it: A young life has been snuffed out. Well, actually, two young lives. The perpetrator has a family, too." Dixon's family did not attend the hearing on Thursday. "I feel for both families," Cruz said, "but our sister is no longer with us. We must be sure that justice prevails."

When asked if she's seen a lot of this sort of violence throughout her life, Cruz laughed at the absurdity of the question. "I'm a child of the 60s," she said. "I've been victimized in more than one way for being who I am." But rather than discourage her, the hardship has reinforced her commitment to her community. "We have to fight for our rights," she said.

One young trans masculine person named Loren struggled to pick just one reason why it was important for him to attend the rally; trans women have done so much for the movement. "I feel a lot of love and fear for my trans sisters," he said. Loren pointed out that the support that Hollywood has had for trans issues has not extended beyond pop culture. "People don't show up when it actually matters," he lamented, gesturing to the small group gathered outside the courthouse. That's one of the reasons he came today, despite knowing he'd have to leave for work before the hearing began. He wanted to show up, knowing many others might not. "The average age of trans women of color is 35," he said. Nettles didn't make it to 22.

Lopez says there's been a great deal of violent attacks against transgender people in New York City, though thankfully none (that we know of) have been killed since Nettles died. Lopez is organizing another rally this week for a transgender couple in Brooklyn; Lopez herself was brutalized in February. "When I was attacked, it was weeks before I tried to get on the train," she said. "Being [trans] opens up a slew of reasons for people to unjustly attack us. Just walking down the street."

Before the hearing began, Nettles's mother, Dolores Nettles, was seated alone on a bench in the courtroom. There were rows of trans activists surrounding her. She smiled at Lopez, and as we waited for Dixon to arrive from his cell in Brooklyn, they discussed the case against him. Hours crept by in the interim. "It's been a heavy ordeal. I don't want him to plead guilty today," Nettles told me, explaining that she wants to see her child's attacker stand trial. She doesn't believe 12 years is a long enough sentence for the loss of her daughter.