As the year comes to a close, staff members of the Fair Michigan Justice Project are proud to reflect on their success solving hate crimes against the LGBTQ community in the state of Michigan.
“The program is going really well. As well as, if not better than we had hoped,” said Dana Nessel, president of Fair Michigan. The nonprofit organization collaborates with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to focus on homicides and other capital offenses committed against members of the LGBTQ community.
Nessel points to the number of active felony cases FMJP has been able to charge since starting the project in July – seven, so far, to include five convictions.
The types of crimes being investigated and prosecuted range widely from felony assault and felony firearm to homicide, criminal sexual conduct, carjacking, rape, child abuse, armed robbery and assault with intent to commit murder.
“We knew assaults against the LGBTQ community were a problem, but even our staff has been alarmed at just how many incidents of hate crime there actually are. It’s terrifying,” she said.
This problem has intensified in the weeks following the Nov. 8 election, according to a report released in early December by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
That same report reveals that Michigan had the highest number of hate incidents among states in the Midwest. There were at least 40 incidents involving bias against African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBT people, and others in Michigan in the period following the contentious election, 18 of them involving suspects who mentioned Donald Trump.
FMJP has been working hard to find viable solutions to fix the problem.
“We are an organization that is actually doing things. We are actively making efforts to solve problems, not just talking about them,” said Nessel. “We can’t be a community of people who just complain about being discriminated against and how bad our laws are. How do we stop and fix the problem? That is our goal. That’s what we’re trying so hard to do.”
In partnership with Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy and the Detroit Police Department, FMJP is also following up on a number of cold cases. The organization has five pending investigations to include the murders of Amber Monroe, Gregory Daniels and Norman Williams.
“I am ecstatic about the works and efforts of this organization. They have truly went above and beyond to bring forth justice to the LGBTQ community and I am looking forward to a promising partnership in furthering the protection, enforcement and equality of the community,” said officer Dani Woods, DPD LGBTQ Liaison.
But it takes time, and occasionally progress is stymied by backlogs, for example, in the Michigan State Police crime lab. Nessel said the “lag time we’re seeing is really not because the staff isn’t doing an incredible job of getting old cases solved. It’s because we’re waiting on lab reports and testing which can take months to get completed.”
Creating a Safe Space
“Legislature doesn’t recognize hate crimes involving LGBTQ individuals, but that’s what these are. They are hate crimes. We need laws to protect these individuals and this project I hope will bring to the forefront that you can’t ignore these individuals. These victims are out there and they are being targeted just because they’re gay and they do need protection,” said Jaimie Powell Horowitz, FMJP special prosecutor.
“Really what you’re doing is sort of giving a subtle wink or nod to those that want to try to injure the LGBTQ community by saying, you know, perhaps it’s okay to go out and commit crimes against this community because they’re not important enough after all to get any of these protections that everybody else has,” said Nessel, adding that she intends to push for a ballot initiative in 2018 to amend the Michigan Constitution to include equal protection for LGBTQ citizens.
While FMJP is notified of potential cases by the DPD or the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, the organization receives many calls from victims directly when they are afraid to report an incident to the police.
“With good reason sometimes,” said Nessel. “There’s a concern they won’t be treated properly or taken seriously. And this is not universal. There are a lot of police departments that do their job. In some cases, people are not out of the closet and they don’t know if they will be unfairly discriminated against or treated with respect.”
But community forums, contacts and discussions with members of the LGBTQ community by FMJP’s staff members have led to scheduling interviews to investigate crimes, and also to help facilitate better relationships between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement officers.
“Members of the community are learning that we’re here, and if we’re here, we’re going to talk to them,” said Powell Horowitz. “This is not a job that’s nine-to-five. Our cell phones are on 24/7. Crimes happen in the middle of the night. People are panicked in the middle of the night. Crime doesn’t happen from nine-to-five. If somebody needs to reach us, we are available. This is a dedicated group of people who intend to be here for our victims. Building trust is key here. This coalition of people, they will do whatever needs to be done.”
Powell Horowitz has been assigned with assistance from FMJP special investigator Vicki Yost to litigate a majority of, if not all of these cases – a task that requires skills when approaching a jury that may come with their own biases against the LGBTQ community, and specifically transgender people.
It’s with that in mind the FMJP announced the issuance of a Transgender Interaction Policy on Nov. 3. It requires employees in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office to treat transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in a manner appropriate to the individual’s gender identity, which may be different from the sex the individual was assigned at birth or listed on official identification documents.
Progress Being Made
People v. Byron Wade
FMJP secured its first conviction on Sept. 2 for this case. Byron Wade, age 54, was convicted of felonious assault for having attacked a 22 year-old gay, black man with a knife in the city of Inkster on Aug. 12. According to police reports, the victim was walking home from work when Wade began verbally threatening him with anti-gay slurs. The victim began running away, at which point Wade pulled out a knife and attempted to stab the victim while calling the victim a “fag”, “bitch” and “queer.” The victim escaped and was able to call 911.
Wade was quickly identified as the perpetrator with help from Yost, who said, “Our networking and outreach is proving to be incredibly successful in reaching victims and witnesses, and working to resolve difficult cases.” Wade was convicted as charged and was sentenced on Sept. 20 before the Wayne County Circuit Court to two months in jail and two years on probation.
People v. Steven Edwards
On July 17, Steven Edwards, 20, pulled a gun on a 23-year-old gay Detroit man while yelling homophobic slurs and recording the incident with his cell phone camera. Edwards later posted the video of the incident on his Twitter account where he was seen telling the victim to “pull up his pants” while calling him a “gay nigger.” With two firearms in hand, Edwards taunted the police daring them to “come and get him” via appearances on Periscope (Twitter’s live-streaming video app) while blaming the victim for being gay.
FMJP was contacted by the victim. Edwards pleaded guilty on Nov. 22. Sentencing is scheduled for January 3, 2017 where Edwards faces two years in prison for the firearm conviction and up to four years for the felony assault.
People v. Kaleel Williams
Kaleel Williams, a 19-year-old man in Detroit, met a 30-year-old gay man on Facebook. At first, the victim told Williams he was a woman, but admitted to being a male when they agreed to meet on Aug. 24 at a secluded park at Appoline and Grove Street. When Williams arrived and opened the passenger door of his car, the victim observed him wearing white latex gloves and decided not to get into the vehicle. As he began to walk away, he observed Williams getting out of his car and heard him yell ‘you gay bitch,’ while firing three shots from a handgun which struck the victim two times in his side. He managed to get back to a nearby home before collapsing and was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Williams pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder and felony firearm. He will be sentenced before Judge James Callahan of the Third Circuit Court on January 4, 2017. Williams is expected to receive a sentence of six to twenty years on the attempted murder charge with an additional two years on the felony firearm charge, which must run consecutively to the other charges as mandated by statute.
People v. Sean Nathan
Sean Nathan was charged with assault with intent to murder following an argument over clothing and food in a home shared by a gay man and his then-boyfriend. Nathan stabbed the victim and called him homophobic slurs. The case is being prosecuted, but there was a claim that Nathan may be incompetent so the case has been referred for a competency evaluation in January 2017, and remains on hold.
People v. David Higgins
David Higgins pleaded guilty to preying upon gay men on a dating website to benefit himself financially. He met his victim online and they began exchanging pictures of their genitalia. Higgins then falsely claimed his juvenile son (which he does not have) had seen the nude photos and he was going to tell the police the victim had engaged in sexting with a minor. He was able to extort $2,000. Higgins was charged federally for the same behavior with another victim also. He will be sentenced on January 19, 2017 before Judge Marie Braxton, or her successor.
People v. Iyesha Porter
Iyesha Porter, a 34-year-old Detroit woman was charged with assaulting and abusing her daughter after finding a lesbian love letter between the 15-year-old and another girl on Nov. 11. Porter then took her daughter out of school that day, took her home, and assaulted her by slapping, kicking, and punching her while telling her she was “no longer her daughter” and she wasn’t going to tolerate her daughter being a “dyke”.
Porter has been convicted of child abuse. She is scheduled to be sentenced on January 26, 2017 before Judge James Chylinski of the Third Circuit Court. Porter’s daughter was placed in her father’s custody.
People v. Andrew Czarnecki and Hameer Alkotait
FMJP recently solved and charged a homicide from July 2013. Defendants Andrew Czarnecki and Hameer Alkotait were charged with the premeditated murder of a gay man in Detroit who was targeted based on his sexual orientation. A witness at the preliminary examination testified that the men admitted their plan to rob the victim of his vehicle. According to the testimony of Robert Bonas, the defendant’s stabbed the victim with a screwdriver and Alkotait used a chain to pull the victim to the ground. Both men beat the victim with their hands and a metal rim and stomped on him until the victim stopped moving.
Bonas stated that Czarnecki admitted to wrapping the body in a sheet and driving to a vacant field where the men covered the body in lighter fluid and set it ablaze. Czarnecki has been bound over to trial on the charges of first degree murder, felony murder, armed robbery, carjacking, and mutilation and dismemberment of a dead body. His case will be heard by Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway. Czarnecki’s co-defendant, Hameer Alkotait, has not yet been apprehended.
“These are some really scary, dangerous and violent criminals,” said Nessel. “It’s easy to say we’re saving lives, but in this case it really is applicable. This work sends a clear message that if you’re going to a commit a hate crime against LGBTQ people, there is a special task force out there that will find you and prosecute you and send you to prison.”