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News / Nation & World

First federal trial for a hate crime based on gender identity starts over trans woman’s killing

By JAMES POLLARD, Associated Press/Report for America
Published: February 20, 2024, 12:43pm

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The first federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity began Tuesday in South Carolina, where a man faces charges that he killed a Black transgender woman and then fled to New York.

The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that in August 2019, Daqua Lameek Ritter lured the woman — who is referred to as “Dime Doe” in court documents — into driving to a sparsely populated rural county in South Carolina. Ritter then shot her three times in the head with a .22 caliber handgun after they reached an isolated area near his uncle’s home, according to Ben Garner, an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of South Carolina.

In recent years there has been a surge in attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. For decades, transgender women of color have faced disproportionately high rates of violence and hate crimes, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2022, the number of gender identity-based hate crimes reported by the FBI increased by 37% compared to the previous year.

And until 2009, federal hate crime laws did not account for offenses motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The first conviction involving a victim targeted for their gender identity came in 2017. A Mississippi man received a 49-year prison sentence as part of a plea deal after he admitted to killing a 17-year-old transgender woman.

But Tuesday marks the first time that such a case has ever been brought to trial, according to Brook Andrews, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina. Never before has a federal jury decided whether to convict and further punish someone for a crime based on the victim’s gender identity.

During opening arguments, Garner portrayed Ritter as someone working vigilantly to avoid the ridicule he’d face if his secret relationship was exposed. They’d met during his teenage years when he traveled from his grandmother’s Brooklyn home to visit family property in Allendale, South Carolina. The two had been close friends, according to the defense, and were related through Ritter’s aunt and the woman’s uncle.

But Ritter became “enraged” when he learned that one of Doe’s friends knew about their sexual relationship, according to Garner. Ritter threatened to beat her for sharing that information with anyone — something he had repeatedly instructed her not to do, Garner said.

The government has said that Ritter’s girlfriend learned about the affair between Ritter and Doe in the month before the killing. Prosecutors believe the revelation, which they say prompted Ritter’s girlfriend to hurl a homophobic slur, made Ritter “extremely upset.”

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Garner cited text messages purporting to show that Ritter complained to Doe about the mockery less than one week before her death.

“He killed her to silence her,” Garner told the jury.

They say that Ritter lied about his whereabouts in an interview with state police later that day. A “nervous” Ritter walked to his uncle’s house about half a mile away from the crime scene and asked for a ride home, according to Garner. Prosecutors say that Ritter enlisted others to help burn his clothes, hide the weapon and mislead police about his location on the day of the murder.

Ritter is said to have been splitting time between South Carolina, where he had a job and driver’s license, and New York, where he lived with family and was eventually arrested.

Government lawyers plan to present witness testimony about Ritter’s location and text messages with the woman, in which he allegedly persuaded her to take the ride. Evidence includes video footage taken at a traffic stop around 3 p.m. on the day of Doe’s death that shows Ritter’s “distinctive” left wrist tattoo, but not his face, in the passenger seat of her car.

Other evidence includes DNA from the woman’s car and testimony from multiple people who say that Ritter privately confessed to them about the fatal shooting.

Ritter’s lawyers have emphasized that the trial is not about their sexual relationship, but whether Ritter killed Doe. Lindsey Vann, one of the defense attorneys, argued Tuesday that no physical evidence points to Ritter as the perpetrator. Notably, Vann said the State Law Enforcement Division never processed a gunshot residue test that Ritter voluntarily took the day of the killing.

The defense has said it is no surprise that Ritter might have been linked to Doe’s car, considering their intimate ties. Further, Vann said the traffic stop footage could have been taken as early as three hours before her death.

The defense added that witnesses’ claims regarding the disposal of evidence are inconsistent. Vann said Ritter’s friends have given conflicting interviews about details like the alleged burning of Ritter’s clothes while facing the threat of federal prosecution if they failed to cooperate.

Any lies that Ritter told investigators were the result of his deep-seated fear of being considered a suspect and adding more fuel to the local gossip about the relationship, Vann said.

Prosecutors don’t plan to seek the death penalty, but Ritter could receive multiple life sentences if convicted by a jury. In addition to the hate crimes charge, Ritter faces two other counts that he committed murder with a firearm and misled investigators.