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.”