Family, Friends Remember Slain Trans Woman

by John Riley

Metro Weekly

Friday February 14, 2014

It's been two years since Deoni Jones, a 23-year old transgender woman, was stabbed in her face and killed while waiting at a Northeast D.C. bus stop. For family and friends of Jones, as well as for the District's transgender community and allies, the mourning continues.

On Saturday, Feb. 8, a range of local political leaders, respected activists, representatives of various LGBT organizations and family and friends of Jones and two other murdered transgender women, Elexuis Nicole Woodland and Nana-Boo Mack, gathered at the St. Luke Center, of St. Luke's Catholic Church, in Southeast D.C. The location is just across East Capitol Street from the bus stop where Jones lost her life two years ago. In a memorial service that combined prayer, singing, political speeches and other tributes, attendees recalled the lives of those lost to anti-trans violence in the District.

The memorial service came just one day after D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin found Jones's accused killer, Gary Niles Montgomery, competent to stand trial for the third time. Since his arrest in February 2012, Montgomery has been subjected to at least four intensive mental-observation hearings, with psychiatrists and mental health experts from St. Elizabeth's Hospital finding him able to comprehend the extent and severity of the charges against him, and Morin ruling twice before - in March 2012 and April 2013 - that Montgomery was competent to stand trial.

However, the start of pretrial proceedings was delayed after Montgomery's legal team, attorneys Colle J. Latin and Anthony Matthews, objected to initial findings and asked for further competency hearings. Subsequent evaluation returned a designation of ''not competent'' on Dec. 2, 2013, the last time Montgomery appeared in person in court.

Friday, Feb. 7, both sides finally agreed to a further finding that Montgomery is competent to stand trial, prompting Morin to schedule a status hearing for March 28 and a preliminary trial date of Oct. 6, 2014 - 32 months and four days since Jones was killed.

The delay in prosecuting Montgomery, who faces a charge of felony first-degree murder while armed, has rankled the local transgender community and its allies, as well as Jones's family and closest friends.

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Alvin Bethea, Jones's father, said he and his family were frustrated about the slow pace of proceedings leading to trial and have been angry with both the defense and prosecuting lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia as delays have mounted over the past two years.

''What Deoni's mother and I are unhappy about is really the lack of empathy, the lack of sympathy, the disrespect and the lack of professionalism that the United States Attorney's Office has shown towards us, as family members,'' Bethea said. ''We think that, again, the prosecution team has just not shown any empathy, sympathy, and to some degree, a measure of disrespect toward us, to the extent that we get the impression they blame us for what happened to Deoni, or they blame Deoni for what happened to her. And so, for that reason, we've asked for a new prosecution team. We've asked those prosecutors, Holly Schick and Jennifer Kerkhoff, that they be replaced by somebody who has some respect for us.''

Bethea said his family is still grieving over the loss of his daughter, noting that his other daughters still sleep in Jones's bed at night because they miss their older sister. Bethea questioned why it seems to be taking so long to move forward with court proceedings against Montgomery.

''Our hearts are just full of grief,'' Bethea said. ''Like I told the judge, and I've told their particular supervisors down at the U.S. Attorney's Office, anytime you've got victims coming to you like this, something is wrong with your office. ... I sent [Ron Machen] an email expressing our displeasure. I have not gotten any response back from him. I filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division asking that the prosecution team be replaced, and, again, they are refusing to replace them. They said 'That's our best,' and I told them if that's your best, we'll settle for your less. We cannot adequately work with them on the prosecution of our daughter's murder."

When approached about Bethea's comments, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office issued a statement defending the prosecutors' actions and efforts to reach out to Jones's family and the larger LGBT community in the District.

''The U.S. Attorney's Office is committed to achieving justice for the murder of Deoni Jones,'' spokesman Bill Miller said in the statement. ''The attorneys on our prosecution team have shown great dedication and are diligently moving forward with preparations for the trial next fall of the man accused of first-degree/premeditated murder while armed in Ms. Jones's death.''

''Our office has worked closely with the family of Ms. Jones, as it does with other families of victims of crime, and we once again extend condolences for their loss,'' Miller continued. ''Homicide Section supervisors have spoken to and met with the family on a number of occasions and believe that the case is appropriately staffed with two very experienced prosecutors.

''More generally, the U.S. Attorney's Office has done extensive outreach with the LGBT community, and most recently has focused efforts on the transgender community. A recent diversity forum, co-sponsored by our office, featured a presentation on transgender issues led by a community activist.''

Bethea also had harsh words for the defense, accusing Montgomery's lawyers of ''piling on to what this individual did to our daughter'' and saying that the delays were ''another injustice'' adding to the trauma of losing a child.

''Deoni's mother and I are suffering with the constant continuations and no closure, at least on that aspect of what happened to Deoni. We have to continue to go down there to the court. We have to continue to look this individual in the face, and justice has not come yet. And that's torture for us.''

Matthews, who works for the public defender's office and whose past clients include Derrick Lewis, sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 for the August 2003 shooting of a transgender woman, Emonie Kiera Spaulding, did not return a request for comment as of press time.

Bethea says he believes that not only does Montgomery understand his actions on the night Jones was killed, but has failed to show any remorse.

''From all witnesses and all accounts, he was down at Benco strip mall, panhandling,'' says Bethea. ''When he left Benco and sat down beside Deoni at the bus stop, he saw Deoni was transgender and decided to take advantage of it.''

Requests for comment from the anti-violence group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), which had been tracking the progress of the case, were not returned as of press time.

In spite of the sorrow surrounding the loss of Jones and the other transgender women memorialized at the Feb. 8 service, there were some hopeful notes as attendees applauded some of the recent triumphs of the transgender community.

In particular, the memorial service heaped praise upon several of the city's political leaders who were in attendance, from Mayor Vincent Gray (D) to Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), David Grosso (I-At-Large) and David Catania (I-At-Large). Catania, in particular, earned accolades for his role as the chief sponsor of a bill, named posthumously for Jones, which allows transgender people to more easily obtain new birth certificates and vital documents that accurately reflect their name and gender identity. Following two unanimous votes by the D.C. Council, Gray signed the bill into law in August of last year.

Longtime local transgender activist Earline Budd added that the birth-certificate bill is already having a positive effect for some transgender women, specifically those on Medicaid, because if they can obtain a birth certificate identifying them as female, Medicaid has agreed to cover the cost of hormones. Budd also announced the formation of the Deoni Jones Foundation, an organization that will seek to engage the local community around transgender issues. The foundation will hold events on a regular basis to raise awareness of issues of importance to the transgender community.

''More comes out of this passing of one of greatness, as Deoni was,'' Budd said.

In addressing the crowd at the memorial service, Catania related the story of a trip to Israel where he was shown a ravine, a place where during biblical times people were tortured and killed, which locals called ''Hell.'' Catania drew the parallel to that place and the idea of ''hell on earth,'' where misery and hatred are allowed to fester and be carried out against others, including innocent victims like Jones.

''We have a choice, each of us, whether or not we internalize fear, whether or not we embrace it, and how we act upon it, or whether or not we reject it,'' Catania said, before shifting to honor Jones's family for their strength and dedication to LGBT rights even after their daughter's death. ''You bring us together to remind us that the devil and hell on earth cannot divide this community, or keep this family down.''

Speaking on behalf of Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who helped shepherd the Deoni Jones Birth Certificate Equaly Amendment Act through one of two crucial council committees, Alexander's senior policy advisor, Ronald King, urged those present to combat anti-transgender and anti-LGBT actions and attitudes.

''We have to stand up when any of us is attacked, because it's an attack on all of us,'' King said. ''We cannot allow this hatred, this 'hell on earth' to continue.''

Both Wells and local transgender activist Jeri Hughes spoke of how D.C. has made progress in the area of transgender rights, but still has far to go. While Wells said progress has been made, ''but not near enough,'' Hughes pointed out that the District has more transgender women housed in the D.C. Department of Corrections than the number of transgender women who are working for the District government. Hughes urged the crowd to ''be kind, be compassionate, and do the right thing'' to combat both the hatred directed at members of the transgender community and the poverty that often hinders the success and well-being of transgender people.

The memorial service was punctuated by musical interludes, including a rendition of Amy Grant's ''All I Ever Have to Be,'' sung by Bobbi Strang, and a group sing-along to Whitney Houston's ''The Greatest Love of All'' in memory of Jones's decision to live openly and confidently as a transgender woman in the years preceding her death.

Deoni's mother, Judean Jones, thanked the organizers and those in attendance for honoring her daughter's life, and invited people to join again in year's time for another memorial service.

''For all those who are out here, I want you to come back, because it's going to get bigger, it's going to get better, and we're going to take this thing all the way, until it can't go no more,'' she said. ''I love you all, and thank you.''

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