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(WB) In a little noticed development, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year ordered federal prosecutors and the FBI to review seven murders of transgender women in locations throughout the country and offered assistance to local authorities who were investigating the murders.

According to a report by the New York Times, Sessions took the action in response to a request in March by six members of the U.S. House of Representatives who urged him to look into the killings, the victims of whom were black trans women.

One of the cases took place in the small city of Burlington, Iowa, where a popular 16-year-old male high school student, Kedarie Johnson, who came out as gay but sometimes presented as a woman and occasionally wore women’s clothes, was found shot to death in an alley in March 2016.

In January of this year local authorities charged Jorge Luis Sanders-Galvez, 22, and Jaron Narelle Purham, 24, of Jennings, Mo., with first-degree murder in connection with Johnson’s death. But Burlington police have declined to say whether they uncovered a motive for the murder and insisted there was no evidence to indicate the murder was a hate crime.

With that as a backdrop, the New York Times reported on Sunday that at Sessions’ request, the Justice Department invoked the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to send a federal prosecutor to Iowa to look into whether Johnson’s murder was a hate crime.

The law, passed by Congress and signed by then-President Obama, gives the Justice Department authority to prosecute hate crimes targeting victims because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion and other factors. In the Iowa case, the two young men charged with Johnson’s murder could face the death penalty if prosecuted and convicted under federal law.

If the Justice Department decides to let the case continue as it began under Iowa law the two men charged would face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

“This spring the attorney general directed Civil Rights Division attorneys to dedicate themselves to proactively investigate a certain set of cases of individuals who were murdered because they were transgender,” said Justice Department spokesperson Devin O’Malley in a statement this week.

“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 individuals,” O’Malley said.

While expressing support for the Justice Department’s assistance in investigating the trans murder cases, including the Iowa case, some LGBT rights advocates said Sessions had undermined the safety and rights of trans people earlier this month in a sweeping action.

They noted his decision to discontinue an Obama administration policy directing the Justice Department to protect trans people from employment discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 would contribute to hostilities against trans people.

Activists also pointed to Sessions’ decision earlier this month to have the Justice Department argue in federal court against a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups calling for the court to rule that all LGBT people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“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?” the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement on Sunday.

“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,” the HRC statement says.

Log Cabin Republicans, the LGBT GOP group, praised Sessions for his decision to intervene in the Iowa case, saying it marked the first time the administration of a Republican president has assisted in pursuing anti-LGBT hate crime charges.

“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,” said Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo.

Local media outlets in Iowa first reported in July of this year that federal prosecutors at the request of the Justice Department in Washington were considering filing federal charges against the two men arrested in Johnson’s murder.

But news of Sessions’ interest in the case and his monitoring of the murders of trans women in other places surfaced this week when New York Times and media outlets across the country reported that at Sessions’ request a Justice Department attorney knowledgeable in hate crimes, Christopher Perras, was dispatched to Burlington, Iowa, in May to help local authorities prosecute the two young men charged with Johnson’s murder.

Friends and family members of Johnson said he had come out as gay but identified as both male and female and sometimes went by the name Kandicee. Some who knew Johnson said he sometimes identified as trans.

A spokesperson for the Burlington Police Department said police, who have declined to disclose whether they uncovered a motive in the case, could find no evidence to indicate Johnson’s murder was a hate crime and they chose not listed it as a hate crime.

Although Sessions did not say so directly, he appeared to be invoking the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act, which gives the Justice Department authority to prosecute hate crimes in cases that had previously been reserved for state and local authorities.

As a Republican senator from Alabama at the time Congress passed the law, Sessions expressed opposition to it.

A coalition of LGBT advocacy organizations that pushed for passage of the law argued that state and local law enforcement authorities in a number of cases in the past had refused to prosecute anti-LGBT hate crimes or lacked the resources to adequately prosecute or investigate such cases.

In addition to giving the Justice Department authority to prosecute hate crimes when local and state authorities do not do so, the Shepard-Byrd Act also gives the department the option of helping local authorities investigate and prosecute hate crimes.


— Lou Chibbaro Jr., Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.