LGBTQ activists in Minnesota want prosecutors to treat the killing of a trans woman as a hate crime

MINNEAPOLIS — LGBTQ activists in Minnesota want prosecutors to treat the killing of a trans woman in Minneapolis as a hate crime, and they want lawmakers to strengthen legal safeguards to protect a community that’s disproportionately the target of violence.

Savannah Ryan Williams, 38, was shot in the head at close range last month. Prosecutors this week charged Damarean Kaylon Bible, 25, with second-degree murder. He remains jailed with bail set at $1 million and his next court date set for Jan. 9. His attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday.

According to the criminal complaint, Bible told police he walked past Williams at a bus shelter near a light-rail station about 5 a.m. on Nov. 29 and that she asked him if he wanted sex. Bible said he began to feel “suspicious” as she performed oral sex on him in a courtyard several blocks away, and that he shot her in the head from just inches away. The complaint says Bible later told his father from jail that he “just murdered someone.” He said he felt sorry for killing her and knew he wasn’t God, but he felt like he “had to do it,” the complaint says.

It was the second attack on a transgender woman near the station this year. Two men pleaded guilty to severely beating a trans woman during a robbery in February, although prosecutors concluded that that attack was not motivated by bias. The local LGBTQ community was also roiled by a still-unsolved shooting at a mostly queer and trans punk rock show in August that left one person dead and six injured.

Relatives of Williams, supporters and leaders of the Queer Legislative Caucus gathered at the state Capitol on Thursday to mourn and call for stronger protections for all people, including trans women of color like Williams, who are disproportionately targets of violence. Her family identified her as Cuban and Native American, and urged people not to judge her.

“Savannah should be alive today. Because Savannah is a trans woman, she is dead,” Democratic Rep. Leigh Finke, of St. Paul, the state’s first openly transgender legislator, told reporters. “Transphobia is rampant in America, and it is deadly.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, said in an annual report last month that it has recorded the deaths of 335 transgender and gender non-conforming victims of violence, including at least 33 deaths in the preceding 12 months. The group said the victims were “overwhelmingly young and people of color, with Black trans women disproportionately impacted.”

“The epidemic of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people is a national tragedy and a national embarrassment,” Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in the report.

Amber Muhm, who knew Williams though trans support programs, called for a prohibition on the “trans panic defense,” which is banned in at least 18 other states but not in Minnesota.

According to the LGBTQ+ Bar, a national legal advocacy group that prefers the more inclusive term “LGBTQ+ panic defense,” it’s a strategy in which defendants blame their violent actions on their victims because of antipathy toward their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression. One prominent case in which it appeared was the murder trial of two men who savagely beat 21-year-old college student Matthew Shephard in Wyoming in 1998, and left him tied to a fence to die.

Muhm also called on the 2024 Legislature to expand on protections enacted this year for trans youth and others.

“We miss Savannah dearly and she should be here with us today,” Muhm told reporters. “Our hearts are broken but we’re going to keep fighting and keep pushing, and we’re going to make Minneapolis the best trans community in the country.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a statement that she couldn’t get into details of the case because it remains under investigation. Bur Moriarty, who identifies as queer, said transgender people “deserve to live authentically and be free from threats and violence.” She committed herself to prosecuting the case appropriately.

Minnesota doesn’t have a specific hate crime offense on the books, but it allows for longer sentences in crimes motivated by bias. Second-degree murder is punishable by up to 40 years in Minnesota.

“If the investigation reveals sufficient evidence to prove bias motivation beyond a reasonable doubt, we would prosecute accordingly,” Moriarty said.

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