BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Roughly 18 months after Islan Nettles died from injuries she suffered during an assault in Harlem, the Manhattan district attorney announced an indictment on manslaughter and assault charges in the killing.
“Over the past 18 months, my office has exhaustively investigated this case with the objective of making sure that justice is served for Islan Nettles,” said Cy Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, in a March 3 statement. “A grand jury has voted to indict James Dixon on charges of manslaughter and assault for attacking this young transgender woman on a Harlem street. Her serious injuries caused her death days later.”
Nettles, who was 21 at her death, was walking with two friends on Frederick Douglas Boulevard between 147th and 148th Streets early in the morning on August 17, 2013. They encountered a group of eight young men and one of them, allegedly Dixon, punched her in the face, knocking her down. Allegedly, he then delivered additional blows as Nettles lay on the sidewalk. Nettles, who sustained brain injuries, died on August 22.
More than a year after first suspect’s case dropped, second man charged in transgender woman’s death
Dixon, now 24, is charged with first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, and first-degree assault, none as hate crimes. In the immediate aftermath of Nettles’ death, however, an NYPD spokesperson, Detective Cheryl Crispin, told Gay City News the case was being investigated as a hate crime because police determined that “derogatory language” was used in the attack.
The top count facing Dixon carries a sentence of a minimum of five years in prison and up to 25 years in prison, with the requirement that the defendant serve at least six-sevenths of the sentence handed down before being eligible for release.
According to the voluntary disclosure form that the district attorney released with Dixon’s indictment, police have a written statement from Dixon, a statement that he gave to a detective, and a video statement that he made. All three are dated August 21, 2013. The voluntary disclosure form suggests that the district attorney does not have a witness to the crime who identified Dixon as the assailant.
Police originally arrested Paris Wilson, then 20, in the attack. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment. The charges against him were dismissed because, prosecutors said at the time, another young man had come forward and confessed to the crime. Presumably, that other young man was Dixon, who has now been indicted in the killing. It is not clear if the district attorney has new evidence or why Vance may feel the case is stronger now than it was in 2013.
The criminal complaint that was filed by police to support Wilson’s arrest suggested that police had at least one witness to the assault who identified Wilson as Nettles’ attacker.
“I am informed by ___, of an address known to the District Attorney’s Office, that she observed the defendant strike ___ about the head with a closed fist, causing ___to fall to the ground,” read the Wilson complaint, which did not identify the witness. “Once on the ground, the defendant continued to strike ___ in the face.”
At a November 2013 hearing in Wilson’s case, Nicholas Viorst, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Wilson, said his office was not prepared to move forward on the case, adding that the district attorney was “aggressively investigating” the crime and could bring homicide charges against “Mr. Wilson or someone else” in the future. Viorst is prosecuting Dixon with Laura Millendorf, another assistant district attorney.
The Nettles case has been the subject of protests and ongoing political organizing, both online and in the LGBT community. Leading LGBT groups, including the Empire State Pride Agenda, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund have commented on the case or pressed police and the district attorney for more aggressive action.
In a written statement, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the six-member LGBT Caucus, and Councilmember Inez Dickens, who represents Harlem, said, “The murder of Islan Nettles was a senseless tragedy and we commend the New York City Police Department and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance for their hard work in the pursuit of justice. LGBTQ New Yorkers – very often transgender women of color like Islan Nettles – are too often the targets of attacks and the City Council stands in solidarity with them as we work to ensure all communities are treated with respect.”
Gay City News could not identify the attorney who is representing Dixon.