Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Advocates Say Brooklyn D.A.’s Office Is Prosecuting Transgender People In Self-Defense Cases

Decision-making by prosecutors in such cases, says one attorney, ‘compounds, entrenches, and ultimately authorizes the initial act of violence by prosecuting the victim.’

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Tina Potocki/Getty

Advocates Say Brooklyn D.A.’s Office Is Prosecuting Transgender People In Self-Defense Cases

Decision-making by prosecutors in such cases, says one attorney, ‘compounds, entrenches, and ultimately authorizes the initial act of violence by prosecuting the victim.’

“I can hardly breathe,” Asher Torres told the 911 operator, as he strained to get the words out between gasps. “I’ve been so hit so hard.” It was approximately 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2017, and Torres, 34, was calling from the lobby of the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Torres and his boyfriend, 25-year-old Stevie Sullivan, were attending a party when they said they were attacked. “This person had a problem with us because we’re trans,” Torres told the operator as he described the assault and his injuries, “and he just went after my partner.” 

But when officers from the NYPD’s 94th Precinct arrived at the Wythe, they arrested Torres and Sullivan instead of the individual Torres had identified as an assailant, hotel employee Alex Hernandez. Soon afterward, and despite surveillance video from the hotel indicating Hernandez striked the couple before they fought back, prosecutors from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office filed misdemeanor charges against Torres and Sullivan that included assault, attempted assault and menacing in the third degree.

For transgender advocates, the Sullivan case is emblematic of the persistent risks to their safety as well as the legal peril they face when they defend themselves. Many gender nonconforming people live with the constant threat of violence. In 2017, advocates tracked at least 29 killings of transgender people in the United States, the most ever recorded. Yet instead of receiving support from the criminal justice system, victims who survive violence are often retraumatized or criminalized by it. This appears to be true even in Brooklyn, where District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has made an explicit commitment to support LGBTQ crime victims. “This case points to mistreatment and criminalization of transgender people at the hands of law enforcement and why transgender people are often reluctant to report harassment and violence to law enforcement,” said Shelby Chestnut, co-director of policy and strategic projects at the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California. “All charges against Stevie should be dropped.”

When contacted by The Appeal, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office refused to comment on Sullivan’s case, citing its policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Instead, a spokesperson emailed a statement, which read in part that “our office has incorporated cultural competency training for all prosecutors, encourages all victims of hate crimes to call our Helpline … and has vigorously pursued bias-motivated crimes against LGBTQ individuals. Nearly a third of cases handled by our Hate Crimes Unit this year involve attacks against this vulnerable population. We continue to evaluate all the facts and circumstances in the case in question.”

Sullivan had previously worked at the Wythe’s rooftop bar, the Ides. He returned to the hotel last October to attend a going-away party for a former co-worker. Moira Meltzer-Cohen, Sullivan’s attorney, says Hernandez, the alleged attacker, was her client’s manager when he worked at the Ides and would berate and stare at him for long periods of time. Emails reviewed by The Appeal indicate that in May 2017, Sullivan sent to an email to the hotel’s human resources department in which he he raised concerns about Hernandez’s aggressive conduct.

The matter was never resolved, and Sullivan eventually got a job elsewhere. The two men encountered each other again on the night of the party, in the lobby of the bar. Surveillance footage from the hotel reviewed by The Appeal shows Sullivan and Torres chatting as they wait for an elevator to take them down from the rooftop bar to the hotel lobby. When Sullivan walks down the hallway to look for a friend, Hernandez enters the frame. While Sullivan’s back is turned, Hernandez charges at him and shoves him into an elevator door. A moment later, Sullivan recovers and pushes Hernandez against the hallway wall. The men grab at each other’s clothes and limbs, wrestling for control. Torres then attempts to separate the two but instead gets drawn into the scuffle. The fight only stops with the arrival of hotel security.

Meltzer-Cohen says that when police reviewed the surveillance footage they incorrectly concluded that the fight began when Sullivan tripped Hernandez. (Hernandez does appear to stumble in the video, but there is no indication that was a result of Sullivan’s conduct.) The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment. The Wythe terminated Hernandez about a week after the incident for violating its anti-violence policy, according to a personnel document subpoenaed by the defense and reviewed by The Appeal.

Like Sullivan, many in the transgender community have faced prosecution for defending themselves. In late 2017, transgender activist Ceyenne Doroshow was arrested and charged with assault in Queens after she says she defended herself from an abusive partner. In June 2012, CeCe McDonald, a Black transgender woman in Minneapolis, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter after she fought off a group who assaulted her and her friends outside a bar. (One of the assailants died after McDonald stabbed him with a pair of scissors she’d retrieved from her purse.) Ky Peterson, a Black trans man from Georgia, is serving a 20-year sentence for shooting a man who raped him in a trailer park.

Gonzalez, the Brooklyn DA, has promised to better serve LGBTQ New Yorkers; he launched an initiative to train prosecutors to ensure that they are culturally competent in relating to LGBTQ crime victims and to “get the word out that the District Attorney’s Office is a safe space to report crime.” “As prosecutors charged with keeping the community safe,” Gonzalez said during a 2017 Pride Month celebration, “it is important that we establish a safe space for the LGBTQ community to report when they are victims of crime, especially since crimes against this community have historically been underreported and violence against transgender women of color continues to rise.”

Yet the Sullivan case isn’t the first instance where the Brooklyn district attorney’s office under Gonzalez has been accused of aggressively prosecuting transgender people involved in relatively minor altercations, even when their behavior may have been a reaction to past trauma. In December 2015, a Black trans woman named Merci Chrisette was charged with assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and reckless endangerment after she lunged at two people on a subway train with a hair separator. In May 2018, after a campaign in support of Chrisette, the DA’s office allowed her case to be transferred to the borough’s Mental Health Court. Established in 2002, the court enables people with serious mental illnesses to avoid jail time as long as they follow a mandated treatment program.

In interviews with The Appeal, defense attorneys described at least two other cases in which transgender people have been aggressively prosecuted by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office after either an incident of domestic violence or a street assault. This pattern of decision-making by Brooklyn prosecutors on cases involving transgender people “compounds, entrenches, and ultimately authorizes the initial act of [transphobic] violence by prosecuting the victim,” Meltzer-Cohen said. “It’s the result of totally unexamined, pervasive, institutional transphobia.”

The October 2017 fight at the Wythe may have only lasted about 15 seconds, but it has had a long-lasting impact on Sullivan and Torres. Since the incident, the couple have had to miss work to attend court dates and manage the emotional, physical, and financial toll brought on by the assault and potential criminal convictions. On October 15, Sullivan and Torres appeared in Kings County Criminal Court and agreed to an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal which allows their case to adjourned for a few months; if they stay out of trouble, the charges will likely be dismissed. Torres and Sullivan must also comply with an order of protection for Hernandez.

“[This experience] has made it obvious to me that existing as a queer, trans person is not safe,” Sullivan said in a statement released through his attorney. “This started with me being attacked. My assailant was never arrested, but I was charged with assault. This prosecution has gone on for over a year. It has been terrifying.”

This Florida County's Sheriff Is Controversial. But His Election Won’t Be Close.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stands accused of violating immigrants’ rights and dismissing a shocking number of jail deaths.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo via Chad Chronister Twitter

This Florida County's Sheriff Is Controversial. But His Election Won’t Be Close.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stands accused of violating immigrants’ rights and dismissing a shocking number of jail deaths.

The Appeal is spotlighting sheriffs across the country who are seeking re-election on Nov. 6. The rest of the series will be available here.

It was 2 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2011, when Allison Bredbenner finally got off the phone with her child’s father after a three-hour call.  The two were in the middle of a custody battle, and Bredbenner took an Ambien to try to get some rest. But the respite would not be long.

At 4 a.m., she awoke to the sounds of three Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officers and three fire and rescue employees breaking through her window and entering her room. They seized her son, who was screaming in confusion, and arrested her for child neglect, according to a later lawsuit filed by Bredbenner. The child’s father had called police after their phone call, claiming he had seen her passed out on the floor with the child crawling around. They found the mother and child sleeping in bed, not on the floor. Bredbenner offered to show the officers court documentation about their custody battle and repeatedly asked to take a breathalyzer or drug test to prove she was not intoxicated. But they arrested her anyway and put her in jail for a day. Though her charges were later dropped, the pending felony resulting from the arrest meant that Bredbenner temporarily lost custody of her child.

The officers, however, did not appear to face any consequences. Though Bredbenner later sued them for false arrest, and a district and an appeals court later found they did not have probable cause for the arrest, in the years following the incident, at least two of the three officers appear to have stayed on the force. (The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to The Appeal’s request for information about what consequences the officers faced, if any).

Deputies’ treatment of civilians like Bredbenner is one of many issues that could figure in the November election for Hillsborough County sheriff. The election should be a big deal because the county is home to 1.4 million residents, covering much of the Tampa area. Though activists have criticized the office’s record, the election already feels like a foregone conclusion to locals.

The coronation

The far and away front runner for the sheriff’s race, Chad Chronister, is a department veteran and the hand-picked successor of former sheriff David Gee. Last year, less than a year into his fourth term, Gee suddenly retired and recommended that Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, appoint Chronister, then a colonel, to take the interim sheriff’s position till the 2018 election.

Chronister “was unknown to most residents when he was anointed by Sheriff David Gee as his successor,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Gee’s retirement gave Chronister the distinct advantage of being an incumbent with name recognition, Paulson noted in an email.

On top of this institutional backing, Chronister is in a league of his own when it comes to campaign financing. Powered by his marriage into the DeBartolo family, former owners of the San Francisco 49ers, Chronister’s political action committee alone has raised over $1 million, setting a new record for a Hillsborough race.

Prisoner left to die

Last year, Zarah Jackson, 62, was found in his Hillsborough County Jail cell, unconscious and lying in a pool of blood. Two weeks earlier, Jackson, who had mental health issues, complained about his prisoner uniform and  got into an altercation with a jail deputy. After Jackson shouted curses and flailed his arms, a group of guards tackled him, slamming his face onto the concrete floor. He was moved to a clinic then had a disciplinary hearing, where he was given 30 days in solitary confinement. This would prove to be a death sentence.

Over the next week, Jackson was shifted from a hospital to a jail infirmary, and finally back to solitary confinement. The jail’s medical provider gave him blood-thinning medications he was not supposed to have. Over a week later, he was found comatose in his cell and never woke up. His family took him off life support. He died on Feb. 3, 2017.

Jackson’s death was one of numerous prisoner deaths exposed in a July Tampa Bay Times investigation, which dug into the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s troubling opacity regarding custody jail deaths. Though authorities said publicly that six inmates had died in custody in the last three years, the Tampa Bay Times independently uncovered 13 other deaths.

Additionally, the paper found at that least 42 people have died in its jails over the last decade. And there may be more deaths. The Times found that the sheriff’s office failed to keep thorough documentation of prisoner deaths, and did not always communicate with families over how their loved ones have died.

Of the 42 deaths that the Times identified, not one resulted in criminal charges or disciplinary actions against guards or other inmates, even though three of these deaths (including Jackson’s) were ruled to be homicides. When asked about Jackson’s death, Colonel Michael Perotti, who was overseeing the county’s jails at the time, said he saw “nothing malicious, inappropriate, or violent about it.” Perotti continued, “It was a textbook takedown, the inmate was immediately assessed by medical, and when things began going south a few weeks down the road, he was immediately taken to the ER.

As interim sheriff, Chronister has signaled publicly that he is committed to transparency but does not believe the department’s handling of jail deaths require a major overhaul. After the Tampa Bay Times investigation uncovering additional deaths, Chronister responded, “We know the number. … We just don’t have one place to go look.” The department, officials said in July, will release a database of prisoner deaths and make them known to the public via news releases.

Helping ICE deport residents

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has also taken heat from activists for  working with ICE. Though the Tampa Bay area, which Hillsborough County partially covers, is home to one of the largest concentrations of undocumented immigrants in the country, Chronister agreed to jail undocumented immigrants for two days after they have posted bail, facilitating ICE’s ability to nab them. In January, he stood side by side with then-ICE director Thomas Homan, and a fellow sheriff, to announce the new initiative, which was designed to give sheriff’s a stronger legal rationale to hold immigrants for federal immigration authorities.

Civil liberties advocates argue that such agreements still violate immigrants’ constitutional rights, by holding them without due process and sometimes without any charges pending. And immigrants’ rights groups blasted Chronister for taking ICE’s money in exchange for holding residents to facilitate removals. At a protest in February, Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, pastor at Tampa’s St. Paul Lutheran Church and executive director for the Florida Council of Churches, declared, “What I’m being asked to do in order to be a law abiding citizen of Tampa and Hillsborough County … is to give my taxes to law enforcement so they can break up families.”

Chronister publicly endorsed the deal, even though it could open the county up to lawsuits. Under Trump, ICE has issued new instructions to local jailers, asking them to hold anyone they believe can be removed, rather than certain undocumented immigrants, based on prior convictions.

At the February rally, another attendee, Girsea Martinez-Rosas, said her father had been unfairly deported in 2008 and told the crowd that Chronister would pay for the agreement at the polls. “We will ensure that all voters know Sheriff Chad Chronister is complicit with Trump’s mass deportation machine come November,” she said.

But few expect the race to even be close. As the Tampa Bay Times noted, the sheriff’s office has not had a competitive race since 1964. One opponent dropped out in May, after raising only a few hundred dollars. Another, who rails against the department’s “good old boy system,” had raised only $3,310 as of June, according to the Times.

Paulson, the former professor, said he “would anticipate changes from Chronister, but not quantum changes” when it comes to the office’s treatment of prisoners. The new sheriff will want “to establish his own identity,” he said, but he is “smart enough to know that radical changes often get politicians into trouble.”

More in Explainers

Lawsuit: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Tracks Cops With ‘Credibility’ Problems, But Refuses To Release Its List

The office has criticized the NYPD for shielding officers’ misconduct histories, but it won’t share its own information on police dishonesty.

District Attorney Cy Vance
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Lawsuit: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Tracks Cops With ‘Credibility’ Problems, But Refuses To Release Its List

The office has criticized the NYPD for shielding officers’ misconduct histories, but it won’t share its own information on police dishonesty.

In July, the Manhattan district attorney’s office blasted the New York City Police Department over its refusal to share information on officers’ misconduct records with prosecutors pretrial. The office argued such information—which speaks to the credibility of police officers—is critical for prosecutors seeking to vet their witnesses and decide whether and how to charge a case.

But a new court petition, filed Monday, presents evidence that the Manhattan DA’s office keeps its own internal records on police officers with questionable credibility, and is refusing to disclose this information to defense attorneys and the public at large.

Access to such information could prevent wrongful incarceration, defense attorneys argue, because plea deals—how 97 percent of felony cases that result in convictions are settled in New York City—often turn on police officer testimony. Although prosecutors are technically required to disclose exculpatory material about officers that could help the defense under the Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland, defense attorneys argue these disclosures are seldom exhaustive and can be legally submitted weeks before trial starts, long after plea negotiations may have ended.

“The release of these names would impact the plea bargaining process in significant ways,” said Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor and former Manhattan prosecutor.

“Right now it’s a crapshoot for defense attorneys. They don’t know what a prosecutor has.”

The petition, filed by Andrew Stengel, a defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor, requests the DA’s office turn over a list he asserts it has of police officers with any indication of “adverse credibility findings” since Jan. 1, 2017. As evidence of the list’s existence, he points to a February 2018 trial for one of his clients during which the Manhattan DA’s deputy bureau chief, Jeffrey Levinson, publicly stated, “We have a list of officers where we—that have adverse credibility findings, that have been found to have testified falsely.”

According to the suit, Levinson’s statement didn’t surprise Stengel, who since 2014 had been aware of such a list, known colloquially to his then-colleagues within the Manhattan DA’s office as the “naughty list.”  

Judges issue adverse credibility findings when they have found officers’ testimony to be untruthful. In a 2011 speech, District Attorney Cy Vance said the agency routinely reviewedall circumstances in which the credibility of a police officer is called into question.” According to Vance, “Every judicial adverse credibility finding is investigated to determine whether disclosure is warranted when the officer testifies in the future.” How the office chooses which officers warrant future disclosures and how this information is consolidated internally remains unclear.

In March, Stengel filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for the list, but the DA’s office denied his request, saying that it does not have a “list” as defined by his request. “While this office does maintain information regarding a court’s ‘adverse credibility finding,’” the denial states, “these records are prepared in anticipation of litigation and are thus exempt from disclosure.”

Stengel appealed the ruling, to no avail, so he decided to file his suit. “The very purpose of the list is for the adverse credibility findings of police officers to be disclosed by the DA’s Office to defendants,” the petition argues, noting that the office’s claim to have information but not a “list” is a “semantic decision without a meaningful difference.”

The DA’s office declined to comment on the petition by publication time.

A similar battle is playing out in Los Angeles over a sheriff’s list of tainted cops, where the police officer’s union is working to prevent the release of the list to prosecutors. Earlier this year, Philadelphia prosecutors released such a list under court order, after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on its existence. The public defender’s office reportedly filed more than 6,000 petitions for new trials as a result. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner is also reportedly in the process of developing a more comprehensive list than his predecessor’s, as well as a new protocol for sharing information with defense attorneys.

Following news about Philadelphia’s list, The Appeal filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking the Manhattan DA’s office to turn over any of its own records on police officers with “histories of lying, fabricating evidence, or engaging in misconduct.” But the office has not yet responded to that request.

This petition is not the first time Vance’s office has been accused of operating without transparency. The office has been criticized for failing to adopt open file discovery policies, which make documents available after arraignment in other jurisdictions, like Brooklyn. And last week, the Daily News reported that the FBI is looking into the office’s alleged dropping of wealthy clients’ cases after receiving donations from defense attorneys.

Though it is unclear what information is maintained in the Manhattan DA’s adverse credibility records, Eliza Orlins, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney, said access to officer names could inform her pretrial strategy. A New York Times investigation published in March revealed the prevalence of “testilying,” when police officers fabricate their witness statements. If a flagged cop were testifying about one of her clients, Orlins says she could do further research on the officer and then argue for a dismissal.

Currently, Orlins says that officer misconduct disclosures by prosecutors are rare, and defense attorneys are forced to pool together their own bits of information. “I’ll report back when a cop is found uncredible at a hearing, or accused of other misconduct,” she explained. “But it’s hard for us to know about all of it.”

More in Podcasts