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Manslaughter Charges in Beating Death of Transgender Woman in 2013

A Brooklyn man was charged with manslaughter on Tuesday in the killing of a transgender woman who died after a vicious beating in Harlem in 2013, a crime that galvanized anger among transgender people in New York about violence directed toward them.

The arrest of the man, James Dixon, 24, came after an 18-month investigation of the attack on Islan Nettles that included the earlier arrest of another man who was present but turned out not to be the assailant, prosecutors said.

Mr. Dixon, of Classon Avenue, pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter and related charges in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. He was sent to jail by Justice Robert M. Stolz to await a bail hearing next month. His lawyer, Norman Williams, declined to comment on the indictment.

An assistant prosecutor, Nicholas Viorst, said that Mr. Dixon had come forward just days after the attack and made statements to detectives acknowledging that he had beaten Ms. Nettles.

Still, it took the Manhattan district attorney’s office a year and a half to find witnesses and build a case against Mr. Dixon, in part because there was an earlier suspect muddying the picture. “These are some pretty unique circumstances,” Mr. Viorst said.

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Islan Nettles

Just after midnight on Aug. 17, 2013, Ms. Nettles was walking on Frederick Douglass Boulevard with two transgender friends when they encountered a group of at least seven young men, Mr. Viorst said. The groups walked south together and a shouting match erupted between them.

Mr. Viorst said Mr. Dixon “abruptly struck” Ms. Nettles in the face with a closed fist, knocking her to the ground and slamming her head on the pavement. He then leaned over her and pounded her head with his fist, ramming her head repeatedly into the pavement, the prosecutor said.

Ms. Nettles, 21, an assistant at a fashion company who aspired to become a clothing designer, was battered beyond recognition. She lingered in a coma for less than a week before being taken off life support.

Hours after the attack, the police arrested Paris Wilson, 20, of Harlem, who wore similar clothes and bore a resemblance to Mr. Dixon, Mr. Viorst said. Both men had been in the group.

Three days later, Mr. Dixon visited Mr. Wilson at his home and promised to take responsibility for the assault, Mr. Viorst said. Then Mr. Wilson’s mother escorted Mr. Dixon to a police station, where he made statements acknowledging it was he who had assaulted Ms. Nettles, Mr. Viorst said.

Those statements, though incriminating, did not immediately clear up the matter, prosecutors said. Witnesses had identified Mr. Wilson as the attacker and no surveillance cameras captured the crime, law enforcement officials said.

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Norman Williams, the lawyer for James Dixon, who is charged with manslaughter, leading Mr. Dixon’s family out of court.

Credit
Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Charges were eventually dropped against Mr. Wilson in November 2013, and investigators continued to look for evidence, prosecutors said.

The case was presented last week to a grand jury, which voted to indict Mr. Dixon on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, as well as first-degree assault. The jury did not charge Mr. Dixon with murder, which would have required proving he intended to kill Ms. Nettles.

Though the police initially said the attackers had taunted Ms. Nettles with gay slurs before the attack, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., did not seek to charge Mr. Dixon with a hate crime.

Asked why the district attorney did not seek a hate-crime indictment, Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Mr. Vance, said that “the grand jury considered all of the available evidence when making its charging decision.” She did not elaborate.

A hate-crime indictment would have required the prosecution to prove Mr. Dixon’s motive for killing Ms. Nettles was that she was transgender. Investigators have not been able to determine what was said before the first blow was struck, law enforcement officials said.

Ms. Nettles’s killing incensed the transgender community in New York and prompted vigils, protests and the formation of an advocacy group, the Trans Women of Color Collective. For many, Ms. Nettles’s death became emblematic of violence against transgender people, who are often the targets of beatings, and what many of them see as the indifference the authorities show across the country to the killings of men transitioning to women.

Lourdes Hunter, the director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, said the long delay in bringing charges against Mr. Dixon reflected the low priority such cases have among the police and prosecutors. Ms. Hunter also questioned why the attack was not treated as a hate crime, because no motive other than Ms. Nettles’s sexual orientation has been suggested. She also wondered why Mr. Dixon was not charged with murder.

“Really this was murder,” Ms. Hunter said. “He intentionally pummeled her to death.”

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