Aug. 17 will mark five years since Islan Nettles was brutally killed in Harlem.
The man who took her life said that after flirting with her he flew into “a blind fury” when he learned she was transgender. James Dixon punched Nettles so hard that early morning she fell and hit her head on the ground. Dixon then delivered another blow to the already unconscious 21-year-old fashion professional, who died five days later. Dixon is serving a 12-year sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 2016.
For Nettles’ friends and loved ones, the punishment does not fit the crime. And while it’s unclear whether Dixon’s so-called uncontrolled rage over her transgender status had an impact on his sentence, so-called trans and gay “panic defenses” should never be allowed. In the waning days of this year’s legislative session, New York State lawmakers should join California and Illinois in banning the defenses.
Provisions in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget attempted to do that, but in March both the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-led Assembly rejected the rules that would prohibit criminal defendants from raising those defenses. They allow violent defendants to blame their violence on their victims’ gender identity or sexual orientation. Last month, a Texas man received a light sentence after using the “gay panic defense” to explain why he killed his neighbor. He had a similar story to Dixon’s about flying into uncontrollable rage after a supposed romantic advance. This case typifies the need for all states to eliminate these bogus assault rationales.
I am deeply concerned that Democratic and Republican lawmakers in New York rejected Cuomo’s proposal. When courts sanction such defenses, they essentially let defendants manipulate jurors’ biases against members of the LGBTQ community to validate violence.
I and my fellow LGBTQ advocates urge lawmakers in Albany to stop heinous defenses that allow violent criminals to use their victims’ gender identity or sexual orientation as an excuse for their crimes.
Enough is enough. If LGBTQ people are truly equal members of society, there should be no basis to justify hate-filled violence against us. Nettles and the 13 transgender people killed in the United States this year alone deserved better.
Katherine Cooper is an attorney and a board member of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.