News Law and Policy

Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Minor Not ‘Accomplice’ in Her Statutory Rape

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In a unanimous decision Monday, the state's highest court brought Tennessee law in line with the vast majority of the country.

On Monday, the Tennessee Supreme Court got rid of an antiquated rule that classified statutory rape victims as potential criminal accomplices and eliminated the requirement that testimony of the victim be corroborated by other independent evidence.

The unanimous decision upholds the statutory rape conviction of DeWayne Collier, who was convicted in 2010 of raping a 14-year-old Arkansas girl. According to legal filings, prosecutors alleged that the girl went to a friend’s house and called Collier in Memphis to come pick her up. The state contends the victim stayed the night at Collier’s house, where he had intercourse with her numerous times. The next day Collier returned the girl to her parents’ house. Once there, the police, who had been alerted by the girl’s parents that she was missing, questioned her and took her to a local hospital for an examination. During the hospital examination, semen was found on her jeans, but medical experts were unable to determine when the semen had been deposited or if it was Collier’s.

At the trial, the girl testified that she had a relationship with Collier, but no other medical evidence confirmed that intercourse had occurred between the girl and Collier. At the close of the trial, the jury found Collier guilty of aggravated statutory rape, based mostly on the testimony of the victim. Collier appealed, arguing the evidence admitted at trial was insufficient to support his conviction. In pressing his appeal, Collier relied on several previous court rulings that the testimony of a statutory rape victim had to be corroborated by other proof. Collier’s argument was persuasive; the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the victim was an accomplice to the crime and followed the rule requiring corroboration. But the court also affirmed Collier’s conviction, finding that the girl’s testimony was substantiated by other evidence. In other words, on appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals reaffirmed the worst possible reading of Tennessee law while simultaneously affirming Collier’s conviction.

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to review the case to address the history of requiring that statutory rape convictions be corroborated by evidence, in addition to victim testimony. According to the court, the testimony of the victim of a statutory rape, if accredited by the jury, doesn’t have to be supported by other corroborative evidence. The ruling puts Tennessee among the majority of states who have found there was “no defensible reason” to classify minor victims of sex crimes as accomplices or to characterize their testimony as “inherently unreliable.”

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It’s an outcome that was more in doubt than many people would hope. Despite the fact that minors cannot, as a matter of law, consent to sex with an adult, it has been said that courts still embrace the idea of the “juvenile temptress” and reinforce purity culture expectations on young victims that excuse predatory behavior by adults.

News Law and Policy

Supreme Court Tie in Dollar General Case ‘Clear Victory’ for Tribal Sovereignty

Nicole Knight

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

A U.S. Supreme Court tie on Thursday represented a win for tribal court authority in a case involving a Dollar General employee accused of molesting a 13-year-old more than a decade ago.

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

Justices deadlocked 4 to 4 in their opinion, leaving in place a federal appellate court decision that rejected Dollar General’s challenge to tribal court jurisdiction.

“It’s a clear victory,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, counsel to the nonprofit National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), in an interview with Rewire. NIWRC filed an amicus brief in the case in favor of tribal sovereignty, along with 104 other organizations. “Dollar General spent a lot of time, and lot of money, and a lot of resources attempting to completely eliminate tribal jurisdiction.”

In 2003, Dale Townsend, a Dollar General store manager, allegedly engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation at the store on a then-13-year-old Choctaw boy, who was placed there by a youth job-training program. The Dollar General store sits on tribal trust lands, agreed to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction regarding its store lease, and operates under a business license issued under Choctaw code.

In 1981, the Court ruled in Montana v. United States that tribal authority extends to non-Natives entering into consensual relationships with a tribe “through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements,” as SCOTUSblog wrote in the case preview.

Dollar General, however, argued the tribal court had no authority. In its appeal, the Tennessee-based corporation invoked a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts lacked judicial power over non-members in criminal cases.

The boy’s case, however, was a civil matter. While the tribe’s attorney general took steps to bar the Dollar General manager from the reservation, the U.S. Attorney did not bring criminal charges against Townsend. The boy’s family is suing Dollar General and the store manager for damages in excess of $2.5 million, a case that can now continue in tribal court.

Advocates had called the closely watched case an “attack on tribal sovereignty.”

“Nowadays, it’s a very good thing when tribal rights and powers are freshly affirmed,” Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, told Rewire in a phone interview Thursday. “Had Justice Scalia been sitting on the Court, this case would have depended on Scalia’s vote. That’s why there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the outcome of the case.”

The death of conservative Justice Scalia, and Republican gridlock, has left the highest court in the land with only eight justices.

“If Dollar General had been successful … tribal governments would have been stripped of their inherent jurisdiction over the majority of individuals attempting to harm their men, women, and children,” Nagle, counsel for NIWRC, told Rewire.

“In Indian country, our men, women, and children face the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder—higher than any other population in the United States,” she noted. “The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that the majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians.”

When prosecutors decline to pursue these kinds of crimes, survivors have increasingly turned to civil courts for recourse.  

More than four out of five Native women are subjected to some form of violence, and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, according to a May 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyllis Anderson told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court tie was a positive outcome “not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country.”

News Human Rights

Advocates: Trans Woman’s Killer Getting 12 Years in Prison ‘Not a Win’ for Trans Community

Kanya D’Almeida

Twenty-two trans and gender-nonconforming people were killed in 2015, almost double the number who were killed in 2014. The vast majority of homicide victims were people of color, mostly trans women of color, according to national statistics.

James Dixon, 25, will be sentenced to 12 years in prison for beating to death a 21-year-old Black trans woman, Islan Nettles, in August 2013 in New York City.

The sentencing date comes two weeks after Dixon pleaded guilty to the top count of the New York State Supreme Court’s indictment against him—manslaughter in the first degree—following the revelation that his 2013 videotaped confession to prosecutors would be admitted as evidence into a jury trial.

Dixon would have faced a 17-year prison term if the jury had found him found guilty.

“With this conviction, James Dixon has finally been brought to justice for this brutal and lethal assault,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said in an April 4 statement. “Members of the transgender community are far too often the targets of violent crime. I hope that this conviction provides some comfort to Ms. Nettles’ family and friends.”

Advocates and organizers, however, say the opposite is true.

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“This is not a win for the trans community,” Lourdes Hunter, co-founder and national director of the TransWomen of Color Collective (TWOCC), told Rewire in a phone interview. “James Dixon going to jail will not stop trans murders, it will not bring Islan Nettles back, it will not bring peace to Delores Nettles [Islan’s mother], who for many years sat in anguish as the murderer of her child roamed the streets due to the negligence of the New York Police Department and the New York District Attorney.”

Nettles was attacked just after midnight on August 17, 2013, when she and her two friends encountered a group of about seven men, including Dixon, in West Harlem, according to reports. Dixon, per those reports, stated in his confession that he had flirted with Nettles until his friends pointed out that she was transgender.

He says he then flew into “a blind fury,” first punching Nettles in the face and then striking her a second time while she lay on the sidewalk.

Accounts of the murder vary, with eyewitnesses and prosecutors claiming Dixon punched her several times and even slammed her head against the concrete pavement. Those allegations are confirmed by the New York District Attorney’s office, which concluded that Dixon “repeatedly struck the victim with a closed fist, causing serious brain injury, before fleeing the scene.”

Nettles’ mother, Delores, claims the assault rendered Nettles unrecognizable. At a protest in 2014 she blasted New York City officials for failing to send a detective to the hospital where Nettles lay in a coma; Delores stated, “half of my child’s brain is hanging out of her head,” according to the Washington Post.

Nettles was declared brain dead on August 20, and taken off mechanical support a few days later. Her death prompted large and sustained protests in New York City, including vigils and rallies that drew hundreds of people.

“Nettles was killed at an interesting time: The start of what we’re now seeing to be a more visible national trend in awareness and conversations about trans murders,” Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy with the New York City-based Anti-Violence Project (AVP), told Rewire in a phone interview.

Citing data collected by the AVP, which is the only national organization to track lethal violence against the trans community, Chestnut told Rewire that 22 trans and gender-nonconforming people were killed in 2015, almost double the number who were killed in 2014. The vast majority of homicide victims, she said, were people of color, mostly trans women of color.

Keyonna Blakeney, a 22-year-old Black trans woman, was murdered Saturday in Montgomery County, Maryland. An AVP spokesperson told Rewire that Blakeney is the ninth trans woman to be killed in 2016.

Chestnut told Rewire that Nettles’ death had a deep impact on the community because “the rest of the world sees New York City as a safe haven for LGBT people, but in fact its no different from anywhere else—trans people are still subjected to violence, and in some cases death, simply because of who they are.”

Chestnut said Dixon’s confession invokes what’s called the “trans panic defense”—a legal tactic used to convince judges or juries that a victim’s sexual identity both explains and excuses a perpetrators’ “loss of self-control” and resulting assault. This type of defense has been outlawed in California, and the American Bar Association has called on other states to ban it as well.

“Sadly the media has been focusing on this so-called panic defense, which adds to a really terrible, transphobic narrative that there is something fundamentally wrong with being trans when in fact there is nothing wrong with it,” Chestnut added.

Both Chestnut and TWOCC’s Hunter agree that locking Dixon up will not stem the tide of violence against the trans community, since mass incarceration has proved to be an outright failure in terms of preventing crime.

“Sending someone to prison is not ‘justice,'” Chestnut said. “We need to address the bigger, systemic issue, which is: Why is violence like this allowed to permeate our society? And how are we investing in modes of prevention and education for everyone, so that a young, trans women of color can walk down the street and not be killed simply for who she is?”

“In the United States the life expectancy of a trans woman of color is less than 35 years,” Hunter added. “We can no longer ignore that state-sanctioned violence, including [that] the denial and lack of access to jobs, housing, and health care is inextricably linked to the physical violence we face every day. If you don’t have a job and can’t pay your rent, you may be forced to engage in activities for survival that further endanger your life.”

Ten percent of 6,400 transgender adults interviewed for a national survey had engaged in survival sex work between 2008 and 2009, a number that rose to 33.2 percent among trans Latino/a respondents and 39.9 percent among Black respondents, as Rewire has reported.

Trans communities experience disproportionate rates of homeless and incarceration, with 47 percent of Black transgender people having experienced incarceration.

Nettles had been forging a pathway for herself out of this cycle of poverty and violence when she was killed. Hunter said Nettles had just moved into her first apartment, was attending school, holding a steady job, and was an active member of the community, even volunteering at a local homeless shelter—all of which may have contributed to the wave of protests that followed her death.

“There are all these ‘respectability politics’ involved in narratives around trans lives,” Hunter told Rewire. “For instance, Nettles was not engaging in street-based sex work or trying to ‘trick’ people about her identity; when Dixon questioned her, she proudly affirmed that she was trans. Basically she did not fit easily into the stereotyped narrative that the media likes to present about trans women.”

Hunter said a broad coalition of local advocates supported justice for Nettles and her family members. While these advocacy efforts almost certainly played a role in pushing the District Attorney’s office toward a resolution of the case, Hunter says it’s important to fight back against the notion of “respectability.”

“We need to stand up and fight for all trans lives, not just the ones that are deemed ‘respectable,’ because no trans person deserves to die,” Hunter said. “Given the historical lack of [effort] to bring closure to these heinous crimes, the only appropriate response for D.A. Vance is to launch a concerted effort to re-open all cold cases of trans murders in New York City.”

“This is why we say ‘Not One More,’” Hunter said, referring to TWOCC’s video campaign. “At the core of this campaign is the message that we cannot be silent, we cannot wait until a trans woman of color is murdered to celebrate who we are and raise awareness and visibility around our lives, and around the women whose lives were taken away without them being able to experience the happiness and joy that is entitled to all of us as humans.”

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