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Man Pleads Guilty to Brutal Killing of 21-Year-Old Trans Woman

In 2013, James Dixon fatally beat Islan Nettles, a young trans woman of color, in Harlem. Yesterday he accepted a plea deal, confessing to the slaying—and may serve just 12 years in prison.
April 5, 2016, 5:49pm
Photo via Wikipedia Commons

The criminal trial in the death of twenty-one-year-old transgender woman Islan Nettles began last week. Until yesterday, James Dixon, the defendant accused of manslaughter in the case, repeatedly refused the state's offer of a twelve-year plea deal. The jury selection for Dixon's trial had been set for Monday morning after the prosecution outlined their evidence in court late last week. But at the last minute—before the jury could be chosen—Dixon pleaded guilty to Judge Daniel Conviser and accepted the plea deal. Dixon will be sentenced on April 19.

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Jennifer Lopez is the executive director of Everything Transgender in NYC, a nonprofit media advocacy organization. Over the course of Dixon's trial, she has been rallying community members to stand in solidarity with Nettles' surviving family as they worked to ensure her accused killer would be convicted. In an interview with Broadly, Lopez explained that she anticipated Dixon's confession, saying he'd been offered the 12 year plea deal multiple times but always refused, choosing instead to go to trial. According to her, Judge Conviser made a decision on Friday that likely tipped the odds in the prosecution's favor: he chose not to suppress key pieces of incriminating evidence, including multiple written confessions and one videotaped confession. Lopez says that if the judge had ruled the evidence inadmissible, "it would've been harder to prosecute [Dixon]," and he likely would not have pleaded guilty on Monday.

This case has something in common with other violent crimes against trans women: The killer was a man and the attack occurred in a sexual context; by his own admission, Dixon had been flirting with Nettles and only began beating on her after his friends identified her as a "guy" and consequently teased Dixon for flirting with someone they considered to be a man.

The videotaped confession was played in court on Friday and Lopez says that Dixon had an intense, emotional reaction during the screening. The tape shows detectives interrogating Dixon, who initially withholds the truth about what led to the assault, seemingly resistant to admit that he was flirting with someone who is trans. According to Lopez, the detectives eventually goad him: "[The detectives] were telling him, 'Hey, you know, there's some very beautiful transgender women. Could it be that she was beautiful, could it be that you were flirting with her?'" Lopez tells me that it was at this point of the confession that Dixon cracked and confessed that, yes, he had been flirting with Nettles, and that his friends "were clowning him."

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Nettles was out with her own friends that night in August of 2013, walking down the street in her neighborhood during what might be considered the prime of her life: she had a job, she'd successfully transitioned, she had ambitions and supportive friends and family. At the start of this trial, Nettles' best friend Alani Houston theorized about the reasoning behind Dixon's senseless attack on her friend: "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.'"

Read More: Why Do Men Kill Trans Women? Gender Theorist Judith Butler Explains

Over the phone, Lopez recalled the scene in Friday's courtroom: Dixon was seated before the the judge. Behind him, rows and rows of transgender people had come to witness his trial; among them, family members of the person he killed. The videotape of his confession was playing. When it reached the part where the detectives asked, "Could it be that she was beautiful, could it be that you were flirting with her?" Lopez says that Dixon asked to leave the courtroom.

Now he will be sentenced. There will be no jury of peers, there will be no formal plea of innocence or public scrutinization of evidence. At most, Dixon will surrender twelve years of his life, perhaps fewer. "It's a slap on the wrist obviously: twelve years," Lopez lamented. "With good time, he'll probably only do eight years." She's sorry the system cannot serve a stronger sentence for this crime, she hoped it would be harsher, because that could send a message to others—those men who might think their crimes against trans women will go unpunished. And if these crimes do go unpunished, or if little more than wrist slaps are issued to attackers, Lopez fears it might affirm what she suspects these men already believe: it is okay to do something like this.

"It definitely is not okay to do something like this," she said.