Three months after Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman, died as the result of a brutal beating in Harlem, the only person charged in the slaying saw his case dismissed.
Paris Wilson, 20, was arrested shortly after the August 17 attack –– which took place near 148th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard –– and charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment. The criminal complaint filed at that time said that the victim was left “unconscious on the ground with a swollen shut eye and blood on her face.” The defendant, the complaint read, struck Nettles in the head with a “closed fist,” knocking her to the ground, according to an eyewitness. Nettles, who remained in a coma until she was taken off life support on August 22, suffered blunt force trauma, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Nettles’ slaying has been investigated as a possible hate crime –– Detective Cheryl Crispin, an NYPD spokeswoman, telling Gay City News that police determined that “derogatory language” was used in the attack. In the wake of her death, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spoke of “possible grand jury action” and a homicide indictment in advance of an October 4 hearing.
But prosecutors have also consistently indicated they are hamstrung by the fact that another young man came forward shortly after the attack to say that he was the perpetrator.
Wilson’s October 4 hearing was adjourned with no additional charges brought against him, and in New York County criminal court on November 19, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Viorst told Judge Steven Statsinger that while prosecutors and police are “aggressively investigating” the case with an eye toward a homicide charge, he was not prepared to move forward on the existing charges against the defendant, who he said was apprehended several blocks from the scene of the crime. Viorst acknowledged that any homicide charge brought in the case could be made against “Mr. Wilson or someone else.”
In a misdemeanor prosecution, the state must be ready to go to trial within 90 days of arrest.
The dismissal came on the eve of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, held in recognition to the lethal violence aimed at gender-nonconforming people.
The effort by a suspect other than Wilson to confess to the crime was first reported by the New York Post on August 26 in a story that had a law enforcement source saying Wilson’s mother put the man up to it. According to that account, the man told police he was too drunk to remember what happened. That report cast doubt on the veracity of the man’s account.
The Daily News has since reported, however, that a source familiar with the investigation said two “reliable” witnesses had corroborated the account of the man who came forward.
The man’s name has not been identified in court records.
Viorst’s pledge to press forward to win a homicide indictment in the case is predicated on sorting out the contradictions between the initial identification of Wilson as the perpetrator and the other man’s effort to confess.
After the hearing, Xavier Donaldson, Wilson’s attorney, said that his client and the other man are roughly the same height and weight and “may have been wearing similar clothes.”
Nettles’ family and other advocates for the slain woman seized on the district attorney’s commitment to bring homicide charges as progress of sorts on a day when the effort to win justice appeared to have derailed.
“They will be upgraded,” Dolores Nettles, Islan’s mother, said of the charges dropped against Wilson. “I’m upset, but I’m dealing… Hopefully the charges will be upgraded so that the next time he comes to court, he won’t walk out.”
Asked if she had faith in prosecutors and the police, she said, “I have to have faith.”
In an email to Gay City News, Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said, “AVP, working with transgender leaders and activists, is paying close attention to this case, and we understand that the District Attorney’s Office is now pursuing homicide charges instead of the original misdemeanor charges. Homicide charges would be progress, but the LGBTQ communities need a clear and thorough explanation of what the NYPD and DA’s office is doing to investigate and respond to the tragic death of Islan Nettles.”
The group is calling on District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s office to convene a meeting with AVP and community members “to discuss the most recent developments in this case, and to assure that those most affected by this violence have the opportunity to talk directly to the DA’s office.”
Donaldson, Wilson’s attorney, speaking after the hearing, said, “I know that Paris Wilson had nothing to do with [Nettles’ death]… My client never put a finger, a hair, or a hand on Ms. Nettles.”
He was less definitive about Wilson’s relationship to either the victim or the other man who came forward to police. Asserting that “everyone in Harlem knows each other,” Donaldson said of his client and the second man, “I can’t say they were acquainted. They were not hanging out that day.” He was similarly unable to comment on any relationship between Wilson’s mother and the second man.
And, despite multiple media reports that had Wilson and Nettles being Facebook friends, Donaldson said, “ I can’t say [Wilson] was friends with the deceased.” Asked whether his client saw Nettles on the evening she was killed, he responded, “I can’t say whether he saw her or not that evening.”
Donaldson’s demeanor suggested he knew his client was not yet out of the woods. Asked if the dismissal represented a positive resolution to the case, he hesitated before saying, “It’s a positive step.” He added, “Hopefully, he’ll be able to complete his education and continue his life.”