Transgender woman Fern Feather, 29, of Hinesburg, Vt., was found stabbed to death Tuesday along a road in another Vermont community, Morristown, and the man charged has made statements amounting to a "trans panic" defense.
Feather had picked up hitchhiker Seth Brunell, 43, a few days earlier, and they had been spending time together since then, VT Digger reports. Witnesses had seen Feather and Brunell in a parking lot Tuesday morning and called the police because the pair had been there for an extended period. Feather and Brunell told the officers they were simply looking for a place to walk their dogs.
A couple of hours later, Brunell called Eliza Curtis, a friend of Feather's, and said he had killed Feather. He told Curtis that Feather "had come on to me and was going crazy," according to police reports viewed by VT Digger.
A passerby, Karen Cleary, asked Brunell to hand the phone to her, and Curtis asked Cleary to call the police, which she did. When the Morristown police arrived, they found Feather's body. They later recovered a bloody 12-inch knife.
Brunell told the officers that Feather had made a sexual advance and said she "attacked" him, according to a police affidavit. The affidavit quotes him as saying, "I was just defending myself." But police said they saw no "indications of an altercation" and that Brunell was not injured.
Brunell is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Attorney David Sleigh entered a plea of not guilty on Brunell's behalf Thursday in Lamoille County Superior Court.
Vermont has outlawed the use of "gay panic" or "trans panic" defenses. The law specifically addresses "circumstances in which the victim made a nonforcible, noncriminal romantic or sexual advance toward the defendant." It remains to be seen how Brunell's legal team will approach his defense. He is being held without bail at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, an arrangement Sleigh did not contest.
"In a state that prides itself on its LGBTQ+-friendly image, the killing has drawn an outpouring of anger and grief," VT Digger reports. "Advocacy groups and top officials have condemned it and called for an end to transphobic rhetoric."
"Fern brought such joy to so many who were honored to know them and we grieve the loss of their light in this world," the Pride Center of Vermont wrote on Facebook.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott denounced those who are "exploiting fear and targeting divisive rhetoric at people who are just trying to be who they are."
Feather's friends described her in glowing terms. "Fern was one of the most brilliant, colorful, loving, special, super special people that you would ever meet," Nina Shoenthal told Vermont Public Radio. "The kind of person that everyone loved. Everyone wanted to be close with."
"Fern liked to kind of notice the things about people that would make that person feel beautiful," Suzanne Podhaizer, who once worked with Feather in a restaurant, told the outlet. Feather was a lover of plants and animals, friends added.
The Pride Center of Vermont will hold a vigil for Feather Saturday afternoon. She is at least the 11th trans American to have died by violence this year. The actual number is likely higher due to misgendering or lack of reporting.