A man has been acquitted of the murders of two drag performers in Fort Worth, Texas, not only avoiding a conviction on capital murder charges but on lesser charges of murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, and deadly conduct.
Following a 10-day trial and six-and-a-half hours of deliberation, a Tarrant County jury found Fayaka Dunbar not guilty in deaths of Jason Bradley, a cisgender gay man who performed in drag as Bianca Starr, and his roommate, London Starr, also known as London Watson, a transgender woman and drag performer.
Dunbar was released from custody just 90 minutes after being acquitted. Had he been convicted of capital murder, he would have automatically been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as prosecutors had already waived the death penalty.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the jury’s verdict was unusual, as most defendants, even if found not guilty of capital murder, are usually convicted of lesser crimes.
But Dunbar’s defense attorneys, Mark Daniel and Matthew Smid, successfully argued that their client’s shooting of Bradley and Watson was justified because they made Dunbar fear for his life as they attempted to extort money from him and used their size advantage to exert control over him.
According to prosecutors, Bradley and Watson engaged in sex work and would open up the apartment to customers.
In December 2017, one of those customers, later identified as Dunbar, shot the two inside their apartment. Bradley died at the scene. Watson, who was rendered a quadriplegic after a bullet damaged her spine, survived for four-and-a-half years in nursing facilities and a hospital before eventually passing away in July 2022.
Prosecutors alleged that Dunbar, a forklift operator who found employment through temporary work assignments after failed stints in college and the military, would frequently seek out prostitutes.
On December 8, 2017, they claim he scanned the Internet for sex opportunities and found Watson, who offered to perform a sex act on him at her house, located about a half-mile south of the Texas Christian University campus.
Dunbar confirmed at trial that while most of his past paid sex encounters were with cisgender female escorts, he knew that Watson was a transgender woman. Watson herself alleged that Dunbar knew about her gender identity when she spoke to a homicide detective after her shooting.
According to Dunbar’s account, when he arrived at the house, Watson was angered by his tardiness and grabbed his wallet, taking $100 from it before leading him through the house.
She stepped into a bathroom to retrieve a wig and makeup and then completed a sex act on him. After he rebuffed a second sex act, he alleged that Watson — who weighed about 300 pounds compared to Dunbar’s 130 pounds — gripped his neck in a chokehold and lifted him off the floor.
Dunbar claims he was able to free himself and tried to escape, only to be blocked by Bradley in the living room, who allegedly said, “Got him. You’re gonna die. You ain’t going nowhere.”
Dunbar claimed Bradley was assaulting him violently when he fired his gun aimlessly in an attempt to escape, firing off four rounds. He also claimed he carried a gun from having been violently attacked during other incidents in which he paid for sex.
Norman Fields, Watson and Bradley’s roommate, who was home at the time of the shooting, claimed that he woke up to hear hostile voices. He found his roommates in the living room with a man he did not know, telling the man to leave their apartment.
According to Fields, the man said he was not going anywhere and began waving around a gun. His roommates held up their hands, and when the man pointed the gun at Watson, she either grabbed the weapon or the man’s hand.
Fields claimed he ran to his bedroom to retrieve a vase, heard shots, and returned to the living room to find his roommates had been shot. He then called for an ambulance.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Fields was telling the truth and that Dunbar was not only lying but had taken the gun with him with the intent of demanding back his money — justifying the charges against him since the murders took place during a robbery attempt.
They also argued that Watson’s death was directly related to the shooting.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Allenna Bangs told the jury Dunbar regularly sought out prostitutes as robbery victims because he “expects nobody cares about them.” She argued Watson and Bradley’s sex work should not play a factor in whether to convict Dunbar of his crimes.
Dunbar’s defense attorneys argued that not only was their client defending himself, but contended that Watson’s death was attributable to other factors, including poor health, obesity, diabetes, and HIV, as well as poor health care in nursing facilities and hospitals that let her with deep bed sores.
When arrested following the shooting, Dunbar reportedly told police he did not “do it. And if I did it, it was self-defense.”
Prosecutors faced an uphill battle in obtaining a conviction.
For example, the hospital did not report Watson’s death to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. Police were only alerted to her death by a social media post from Fields that indirectly referred to Watson’s death.
By the time they found her body, it had been embalmed, meaning that the chain of custody had been broken, and the autopsy that was ultimately performed on her — despite concluding that she was killed by the bullet that paralyzed her — was conducted under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Other complications included the death of Jeremy Rhodden, the chief detective in the shooting case, who died in July 2018. At the time of his death, he was believed to have a case file containing paper copies of reports, but the digital copies were. Police reportedly searched for the paper files among Rhodden’s effects but could not find them.
Lastly, prosecutors had applied with the court to take a videotaped deposition of Watson, but were ultimately never able to question her and film the deposition before she died.
It is unclear whether other factors also contributed to that delay — potentially giving the jury enough doubt to find Dunbar not guilty of the charges against him.
The Human Rights Campaign expressed outrage at the jury’s verdict.
“Although the killer was recently found not guilty after arguing self-defense, HRC remains indignant that this horrific act of violence ended the lives of two beloved members of the Fort Worth LGBTQ+ community,” the organization said in a statement alleging that anti-LGBTQ animus was a contributing factor in the jury’s final decision.
“Regardless of this grave injustice, we hold their humanity and their lives as valued, loved, and sacred,” Tori Cooper, the director of community engagement for HRC’s Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a statement. “We will continue the fight to create a world where what happened to London and Bianca can never happen again.”
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!