About 70 transgender activists and their supporters turned out on Tuesday for a protest outside the D.C. Superior Court building after a trial at the courthouse of two men charged with the 2016 murder of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, 22, ended last week with a hung jury.
Organizers of the protest pointed out that the deadlocked jury in the Dodds case marked the second time in less than two years that male perpetrators charged in the murder of young transgender women of color in D.C. ended without a conviction.
In August 2017, a Superior Court jury found a D.C. man charged in the 2012 stabbing death of 23-year-old transgender woman Deoni Jones at a Northeast D.C. bus stop not guilty. Similar to the Dodds case, police and prosecutors said they believed the evidence against Gary Montgomery, 55, who was charged in the Jones case was strong and convincing.
Tuesday’s protest organizers, led by the D.C. LGBT community services center Casa Ruby, said the latest two cases were among at least 19 murders of transgender women in D.C. since 1991 in which the cases remain unsolved or the male defendants charged in the murders were not convicted.
Noting that most of the transgender murder victims in D.C. have been young trans women of color, Casa Ruby Executive Director Ruby Corado told protesters the city’s criminal justice system was failing the trans community and creating a chilling effect for young trans people.
“What are we teaching the young people when they are gunned down on the streets of this city and their murderers go unpunished?” said Corado. “What are we teaching our young people about the value of their lives?” she said.
“That is the reason why we’re here because we must change the narrative that is telling our young people that their lives have no value,” Corado said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes criminal cases in D.C., told the Blade on Tuesday that it has decided to retry the two men charged in the Dodds murder following the hung jury on the murder charge that ended their first trial on March 6.
Monte Johnson, 23, and Jolonta Little, 28, were charged with first-degree felony murder while armed, conspiracy, and multiple robbery and gun possession charges in connection with the Dodds murder.
Prosecutors said Johnson, Little and two other men allegedly conspired to target transgender women for armed robberies in the early morning hours of July 4, 2018 because they believed they would be easy targets. Prosecutors said Dodds was among at least seven trans women that the men targeted that night.
The two other men, Cyheme Hall, 23, and his brother, Shareem Hall, 25, had been charged along with Little and Johnson with first-degree murder while armed in connection with the Dodds murder. But prosecutors informed the jury at the start of the trial for Johnson and Little that the Hall brothers agreed to become cooperating witnesses for the government after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the Dodds case.
In his testimony at the trial, Cyheme Hall told the jury it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after she fought back by grabbing the barrel of Johnson’s handgun after he and Johnson attempted to rob her on Division Avenue, N.E., as she was walking to her nearby home.
Defense attorneys for Johnson and Little urged the jury to discount the testimony by the Hall brothers, who they said were habitual liars interested only in telling prosecutors what they wanted to hear to get off with a lighter prison sentence.
While the jury was deadlocked on the murder, conspiracy and several other robbery related charges, it found Johnson not guilty on seven of the 15 other charges filed against him. It found Little not guilty on five of the 15 other charges filed against him.
The jury found Little guilty of a single count of carrying a pistol without a license outside a home or business, the only guilty verdict it handed down in the Dodds case.
Meanwhile, in a development that raised concern among LGBT activists, especially transgender activists, Superior Court Judge Milton Lee, who presided over the trial, granted separate motions by the defense and prosecutors to dismiss a hate crime enhancement designation for the murder charge and other charges against Johnson and Little. Lee said he dismissed the hate crime designation because he considered the evidence supporting such a designation insufficient.
Knowledgeable observers of criminal trials, including D.C defense attorney Cheryl Stein who specializes in criminal law, said hate crime designations are often hard to prove because a jury must decide whether a defendant’s motive for a particular crime is hatred or bias based on the victim’s status such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender status.
“A hate crime is hard to prove,” Stein told the Blade. “If a prosecutor over charges a case with a hate crime enhancement they could lose on the other charges with stronger evidence,” she said.
But several of the transgender activists at the courthouse protest on Tuesday said the perception of the judge’s dismissal of the hate crime designation in the Dodds case and numerous past cases in which prosecutors with the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office have declined to list cases of anti-LGBT violence as hate crimes leaves the activists with the perception that the system is biased against trans and LGBT crime victims.
“Today we’re here because we know that in D.C., the city that most of us call home, we know that trans people, and in particular trans people of color, are hurting and they deserve better,” said Mateo De La Torre, a transgender man who works for the National Center for Transgender Equality.
De La Torre and others speaking at the protest called on the trans community and its allies to help draw attention to what they believe is a flawed criminal justice system for many in the trans community so that steps can be taken to improve it.
“Yes, we need the MPD do to better,” said Del La Torre. “We need the court system to do better. We need the D.C. Council to do better. And we need the press to do better as well.”
Joeann Lewis, Dee Dee Dodds’ mother, told protesters the outcome of the trial for the men charged with killing her daughter was devastating to her and other family members, who took turns attending the trial each day for nearly a month.
“My daughter was a beautiful person,” she said. “I am hurting so bad that the system failed her for this hung jury,” she told the gathering. “It makes me feel like, hey, the system is saying she is transgender. She died. She doesn’t matter,” said Lewis. “She does matter. All of our transgenders matter. All our gay people matter.”
Upon learning of the outcome of the trial in the Dodds case, Judean Jones, the mother of trans murder victim Deoni Jones, released a statement to the Washington Blade expressing solidarity with the Dodds family and raising concerns about the judicial system and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Jones and her husband Alvin Bethea criticized the U.S. Attorney’s office for not listing the murder of their daughter a hate crime.
“I stand with the Dodds family and friends and the LGBTQ community to say we are again having to witness and experience this miscarriage of justice at the hands of the United States Attorney’s Office and judge,” she said.
Corado, however, told the Blade she met with representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office recently, saying “they are committed to working with us and the young people” on trans cases.
Other speakers at the protest, including Lisa Jones of the D.C. sex worker advocacy group HIPS, and veteran D.C. transgender activist Dee Curry, criticized D.C. police for stepping up arrests of trans female sex workers at a time when the city’s murder rate is rising and LGBT-related hate crimes continue to account for more than half of all hate crimes in the District.
“It is amazing to me that in a city that has an increase in gun violence and murder that the police are going after in a much bigger way people who are committing commercial sex work and doing little when it comes to the people who are killing us or maiming us or doing harm to us,” Curry told the crowd at the protest. “We have got to say enough is enough.”
Others who spoke at the rally were trans activist Tiffany McGee of the Baltimore group Safe Haven; Achim Jeremiah Howard, a trans man and founder of the group Trans Men Rising; Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams, pastor of D.C.’s Empowerment Liberation Cathedral; Kisha Allure, Casa Ruby’s Crime Victims Manager; and veteran D.C. trans activist Kimberly Gordon.
In a related development, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says it’s committed to investigating and prosecuting individuals who commit “bias related crimes” in the District of Columbia, according to the office’s spokesperson, William Miller.
In response to a request from the Blade, Miller released a statement explaining his office’s policy and procedures for prosecuting hate crimes at a time when transgender activists have criticized the office for seeking the dismissal of a hate crime designation for one of two men charged in the July 2016 murder of Dodds.
Miller told the Blade the U.S. Attorneys’ Office plans to retry Little and Johnson on the murder charge but declined to provide further details, saying his office never comments on pending cases.
Miller declined to say why prosecutors wanted the hate crime designation dropped against Johnson, but legal observers have said it most likely was because prosecutors determined the evidence they had to support the hate crime designation wasn’t strong enough. Lee cited a lack of sufficient evidence as his reason for dismissing the designation against both defendants.
“We seek [hate crime] enhancements in cases that we believe will meet the legal threshold in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia,” the statement released by Miller says.
“In order to meet that standard, we must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a specific criminal act covered by federal or D.C. law and that the crime was motivated by prejudice,” the statement continues.
“In assessing whether the crime was committed because of specific bias, we carefully evaluate factors such as the words used by defendants while committing the crimes, the use of symbols of hatred, patterns of conduct on the part of the defendants, and any other information that indicates that the defendants were motivated in whole or in part by animus against a particular group,” the statement says.
“We investigate those cases flagged by our law enforcement partners as well as others that come to our attention,” it says. “As in all of our matters, we make decisions based on the applicable law and the facts and circumstances of each case.”