Attack on transgender woman in Minneapolis shows difficulty of hate-crime prosecution
As a transgender woman continues her recovery from a brutal assault and robbery at a Minneapolis light-rail station last month, an ongoing investigation looks to determine if the attack was a hate crime — and motive can be a challenging thing for prosecutors to prove.
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said the victim was initially hospitalized in critical condition but has since been released. More than 200 people who rallied at the light-rail station in support of a stranger identified only by her initials in charges against the two suspects. Her identity as a trans woman remains key in the investigation to see if that's why men attacked her the morning of Feb. 27.
Moriarty said the Metro Transit video surveillance that captured the attack was terrible to watch. Words were exchanged between the woman and the suspects, though audio isn't clear enough at this point to know if they hurled anti-trans remarks. If so, that could prove bias and charges would be amended to reflect that.
"Even if we don't have the facts to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, doesn't mean it didn't happen," she said.
Kevin York Jr., 23, of St. Paul, and Keaton Morris, 19, of Minneapolis, already face first-degree aggravated robbery and third-degree assault charges. A third suspect shown on the video has not been identified or arrested, Moriarty said.
Standalone hate crime charges are not on the books in Minnesota, but defendants can see charges with aggravating factors and enhanced sentencing for being "bias-motivated." In most criminal cases prosecutors don't necessarily have to prove motive.
The charges say that officers had concerns the attack was "due to anti-transgender bias," which law enforcement is mandated to report. Under the statute "Reporting of Crimes Motivated By Bias," an officer must report to the head of the department if they have "reason to believe, or if the victim alleges, that the offender was motivated to commit the act by the victim's race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or characteristics identified as sexual orientation."
Rick Petry, professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said audio from the video would be the easiest way to prove motive, but there could be other evidence to do that such as statements defendants made to others or on social media to infer circumstances on motive.
"But you can also look at what's not there," Petry said. "What's missing in the story? Does the story makes sense? Does it hold together? Do all the dots connect, or are there inconsistencies in the story?"
Metro Transit declined to provide a copy of the video to the Star Tribune, citing the ongoing investigation.
Charges say police responded to the Lake Street light-rail station shortly before 10 a.m., when a caller said a woman was beaten and lying on the ground with brain matter visible. She was unresponsive, badly bruised and bleeding from her left eye and profusely from the back of her head. She struggled to form complete sentences but managed to say "they hit me."
Moriarty said she watched the video to see why officers arrived at their bias conclusion. According to her account of what she saw happen:
About 15 minutes before the attack, the victim was seen standing at the platform interacting with others; at some point there was a disagreement. The suspects then threw water or some type of liquid that was in a glass at her.
The victim had her back to the light rail at the top of the staircase with a half dozen people around. She appeared to throw a water bottle back at the suspects and took an item out of her backpack. Contrary to what one of the defendants told police in the criminal complaint that it may have been a box cutter, Moriarty said it appeared to be round, not a sharp object.
"She looked like she was trying to keep them away from her," Moriarty said.
She was punched in the head and started down the stairs, followed by the suspects as the assault continued. At one point she was pushed and fell down the stairs.
Items were being thrown at her, possibly her belongings because she had a bag or two with her, and then "there was some action by one of the people that made her fall backwards and hit her head," Moriarty said.
On a recent ride-along with Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara, Moriarty said they went to the Lake Street light rail station, which she said was filthy and "looks like we've given up." She said outreach workers should be placed at the station and the community needs to do more in addressing substance abuse on full display at the station littered with needles.
"It was the most disgusting environment I have ever seen. And I have taken public transit all over the country," she said.
Vandalism and drug use led the transit agency to temporarily close the transit station in Uptown to address public safety issues.
"What we can do is to approach something that we know is a crisis in effective ways so that there aren't potential environments where assaults are more likely to happen," Moriarty said.
She also realizes this case coincides with growing alarm among transgender people over the wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping across the country and targeted violence.
The same week the victim was attacked, a Black trans woman in Milwaukee was murdered — the third in nine months, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"I understand how upsetting and frightening it is to many in our community, particularly trans folks, because they have been the subject of assault. And that's not OK," she said. "They deserve to feel safe in our community."
Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender Black woman ever elected to office in the United States, said she believes the attack was a hate crime and there should be stiffer consequences because of that.
"I was and continue to be deeply, deeply saddened and disturbed by the level of violence that was directed at that woman. I think it's a part of some broader issues ... that level of vitriol that we are seeing in state houses all around the country translate down to everyday life on the street."
Kat Rohn, executive director of LGBTQ rights organization OutFront Minnesota, said 46% of transgender people have experienced verbal harassment in the past year, and almost one in 10 have experienced acts of violence. But she said most attacks go unrecorded.
Mandated reports of bias are sent to the FBI and shared through the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. That database shows there were 35 sexual orientation bias-motivated offenses in Minnesota last year and 46 in 2021. Data for this year accounts only for January, and so far there was one.
"We aren't going to solve this by charging more bias-motivated crime or getting an enhanced sentence," Rohn said. "We're going to change this through bigger community conversations. I hope if anything comes out of this, it spurs people to have those conversations and ask, 'What do I do to keep my friends and neighbors safe?' "
Jenkins and Rohn say they are both looking forward to this year's Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31 with an event held at the State Capitol. Rohn noted that the LGBTQ community is too often defined by victimization and legislation.
"There's so much more of a richer, broader experience of what LGBTQ people are experiencing that is bigger than those things."