Islan Nettles' Family and Friends Still Seek Justice a Year After Murder
HARLEM — One year after Islan Nettles' death, a group of advocates and supporters gathered at the site where the transgender woman was beaten to death — in a bid to keep the case in the public eye.
"I thought it was important to come back to the scene where she was murdered," said Brooke Cerda, a transgender woman activist who organized the event. "We wanted to go back there and send a message."
In the year since Nettles was killed during an encounter with a group of men on Aug. 17, 2013, the Manhattan District Attorney's office dropped all charges against the lone suspect in November because witnesses identified two different suspects. No one else has been charged in the time since, and prosecutors say that new witnesses are likely the only thing to move the case ahead.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan D.A.'s office declined comment citing an ongoing investigation. The office has noted in court that there is no statute of limitations for murder charges.
But relatives and advocates called on the D.A.'s office to do a better job updating the community about a case they say sends a strong message to transgender women of color about the value of their lives.
"I don't want this to die down and have people forget. The past year has been difficult for me and my family," said Nettles's mother, Delores Nettles.
Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, added, "The community is frustrated. People are wondering if there is still an investigation."
Prosecutors said previously that shortly before she was fatally assaulted, Nettles, 21, and two friends were walking down Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 148th Street, just across the street from a NYPD housing bureau precinct. They encountered a group of men, who became enraged once they discovered that Nettles was transgender, prosecutors said.
A fight broke out and police say Nettles was knocked to the ground and then beaten bloody while homophobic slurs were yelled. Police discovered Nettles unconscious on the ground.
Paramedics took her to Harlem Hospital where Nettles was placed on life support. Sources said the investigation was delayed because the case was initially treated as an assault, rather than an attempted murder.
Paris Wilson, one of the men described as being present at the attack, was picked up by police a few blocks away and initially identified as the perpetrator by prosecutors. However, prosecutors dropped charges against him after Wilson's mother brought another unidentified man to the station house who confessed to the crime, but said he could not remember much about the incident because he was drunk, police said.
Police did not believe the second man's confession and several witnesses identified Wilson as Nettles' attacker, authorities said. But the subsequent confusion prompted prosecutors to become concerned that they would be unlikely to get an indictment in the case, they said.
Wilson, who was a student at Buffalo State University, has strongly denied through his lawyer that he was responsible for beating Nettles. He was charged only with simple assault before all charges against him were dropped.
The second man has not been identified.
"We want the district attorney's office to know we haven't forgotten," said Stacy Parker Le Melle, a writer and Harlem resident who attended the vigil. "It's great they are pursuing justice but if someone is killed on the street because of who they are, they can't be forgotten."
Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project said Nettles's death has left transgender women of color feeling more vulnerable than usual.
Chestnut's group recorded 18 LGBT hate related homicides in the United States last year, down from 25 the year before but still among the highest totals they've recorded. Transgender women made up 72 percent of those homicide victims, and 67 percent were transgender women of color, she said.
"The belief is there's not as much care given to the lives of transgender people," Chestnut said. "Cases like Islan Nettles's need to be put in the spotlight and not pushed aside."
Delores Nettles says she wishes the investigation had more momentum but believes the D.A.'s office is pursuing the case.
"If anyone knows something they need to say something so the truth can come out," she said.
Advocates are now moving forward with plans to have the street where Nettles was killed named after her. Cerda said she also wants to create a new community center for transgender women that would also be named after Nettles.
"I want to move past these horrific murders," said Cerda. "People show up for us when we get killed but what about helping us when we are alive?"