Metro Weekly

Justice Department assigns federal prosecutor to assist in Iowa hate crimes case

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions – Photo: Gage Skidmore.

In an unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice has assigned a federal prosecutor with experience in prosecuting hate crimes to help with a case in Iowa where a man is accused of murdering a transgender high school student, reports The New York Times.

The decision to assign the federal prosecutor apparently came directly from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has essentially placed the weight of the Trump administration behind seeking a conviction in the murder of Kedarie Johnson, who was also known as Kandicee.

Johnson, a 16-year-old from Burlington, Iowa, who identified as both transgender and gender-fluid, was shot to death multiple times and left for dead in a patch of overgrown grass in an alleyway in the city’s South Hill neighborhood in March 2016. In January, two men, Jaron Purham and Jorge Sanders-Galvez, were charged with first-degrree murder. Sanders-Galvez’s trial is expected to begin on Oct. 24.

“This is just one example of the attorney general’s commitment to enforcing the laws enacted by Congress and to protecting the civil rights of all individuals,” Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the Justice Department, told the Times

The Log Cabin Republicans released a statement praising the Justice Department’s actions.

“Despite the protestations of liberal groups dubious of Mr. Sessions’ commitment to federal hate crimes statutes, the Attorney General has proven himself to be a man of his word, dedicated to enforcing the laws of the land — including anti-LGBT hate crimes legislation,” Log Cabin President Gregory T. Angelo said. 

“As an organization that long campaigned for and welcomed passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, Log Cabin Republicans commends the Justice Department for understanding the crisis of violence against transgender Americans and their responsibility to hold perpetrators of anti-LGBT animus accountable,” Angelo added. “It is our hope that this historic effort — the first by a Republican presidential administration — not only affects justice for Kedarie Johnson, but puts would-be attackers on notice: assaults on individuals because of sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in American society.”

But other more liberal-leaning LGBTQ groups accused Sessions of hypocrisy for trying to tout his commitment to enforcing LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes laws even as he’s made other moves widely seen as hostile to the LGBTQ community. Most recently, the Justice Department rescinded Obama-era guidance and replaced it with new guidance arguing that protections against sex discrimination contained in Title VII do not apply to transgender people. That guidance urged all attorneys working the department to adopt that stance in all future legal disputes involving sex discrimination. 

Sessions has also come under fire for guidance outlining “religious liberty” conflicts, where a person’s religious beliefs run counter to government mandates. Utilizing the principles set forth in that guidance, the Justice Department argued that an employer should have the right to ask for an exemption from having to provide coverage for birth control for employees. Granting such exemptions could be problematic for the LGBTQ community, in particular.

One week after Jeff Sessions changed DOJ policy by refusing to protect transgender people under Title VII and launched a sweeping license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, he’s seeking credit for prosecuting a hate crime?” Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said i a statement. “We believe Americans deserve an Attorney General willing to address systemic discrimination and enforce policies and laws that prevent hate violence in the first place.”

Sharon McGowan, the director of strategy at Lambda Legal, said that “of course it is important” for the Justice Department to get involved in the Johnson case, particularly since prosecutors initially refused to pursue hate crimes enhancements against the two men suspected of Johnson’s murder.

“[I]t is the height of cynicism for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use this  — rankly rare — instance of civil rights enforcement under his tenure to deflect from the current department’s sustained opposition to its historic mission,” McGowan said in a statement suggesting that Sessions’ decision was motivated by desire for positive publicity ahead of a congressional hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

“No one in the Trump administration has done more to harm LGBT people, and especially transgender people, than Jeff Sessions — and in a government chock full of anti-LGBT appointees, that is saying a lot. From revoking the guidance that assured trans kids they were welcome in school to asserting that transgender workers do not deserve protection against employment discrimination to defending Trump’s unconstitutional ban of transgender troops, Sessions has again and again defined transgender Americans as second-class citizens and has created an environment that encourages and enables violence against trans people.

“For Sessions now to seek credit for helping prosecute hate crimes against transgender people is akin to him handing out gasoline and matches and then looking for a pat on the back when he prosecutes someone for committing arson,” McGowan continued. “We hope that the Senators questioning Sessions at Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Judiciary Committee are not distracted by this publicity stunt designed for their benefit and instead hold him accountable for the Department of Justice’s appalling failure to do its job under his direction.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com