A Brooklyn man was indicted Tuesday on manslaughter and felony assault charges for the August 2013 fatal beating of 21-year-old trans woman Islan Nettles in Harlem.
The New York District Attorney announced in a statement that its 18-month investigation has concluded that 24-year-old James Dixon delivered the blow to Nettles's face that caused her to fall and hit her head on the pavement, leading to a serious brain injury. According to Dixon's idictment, he struck Nettles in the head several more times after she fell, exacerbating her injury— a trauma that resulted in her being declared brain-dead and being taken off life support several days later.
On the evening of the attack, Nettles was out walking with two other trans women, and the group was attacked by at least seven men who allegedly became enraged when they learned that the women were transgender, notes the district attorney's statement. Dixon has pleaded not guilty and is currently being held without bail.
Prosecutors say that Dixon confessed to Nettles's murder shortly after the attack took place, but have declined to explain the exact reasons for the delay in an indictment, reports news website DNAInfo New York. A second man, 20-year-old Paris Wilson, was initially detained in connection with Nettles's murder shortly after the attack and was arrested for misdemeanor assault and harassment. But when Dixon then told officials he'd committed the murder — a confession police originally considered false — investigators began to reconsider their conclusion that Wilson was the killer. The fact that Wilson and Dixon bear a "striking resemblance" to each other led witnesses to identify both of the men as Nettles's attacker, reports DNAInfo.
The confusion about which suspect had attacked Nettles prevented the state from bringing the case before a grand jury — until now. Police urged more witnesses to come forward and continued their investigation, which ultimately found that while Wilson was one of the alleged seven men who accosted Nettles and her friends, he did not touch her, reports DNAInfo. All charges against Wilson have subsequently been dropped.
The long road to an indictment for Islan Nettles's murder has drawn protests from local and national trans rights supporters, as well as from Nettles's mother, Dolores Nettles. In January 2014, she was joined by more than 100 people outside the New York City Police Department to protest the delay and overall handling of Nettles's case. At the time, Dolores Nettles expressed her grief to DNAInfo, saying, "I feel like someone got away with murder."
Responding to the long-awaited news that Nettles' suspected murderer had been charged this week, Dolores Nettles told the newspaper, "I'm overwhelmed. I still want to know the facts, but it's been a long time coming."
The sentiment is shared by trans advocates nationwide, many of whom have called for transgender people to be explicitly protected under New York's hate crime law. This group includes the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose executive director, Michael Silverman, made a statement following Dixon's indictment.
"Far too many transgender women of color like Islan Nettles are lost to violence and brutality and all too often their killers go unpunished," Silverman said. "The indictment of James Dixon is an important milestone and we urge a vigorous prosecution in this case. Islan Nettles deserves justice. We continue to honor her life and renew our plea for an end to anti-transgender violence."