At Thanksgiving last year, Carol Asberry picked up a video camera and asked her family what they where thankful for.
“When I got to my daughter, Keymori, she said, ‘Oh, Lord,’ and sways back her hair. And she said she was thankful for her family and for being here—she said so many young people around her keep dying and she’s still here,” Asberry says. “She got emotional and she started to cry, but then she laughed it off and didn’t cry.”
Asberry’s daughter, transgender woman Keymori Shatoya Johnson, 24, was shot and killed while fleeing her Albany, Georgia, apartment in the early morning hours of Dec. 6.
The suspect in the shooting, 25-year-old Kuyaunnis James, was arrested hours later and booked on charges of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, possession of a firearm and solicitation of a prostitute.
On Jan. 6, James went before a magistrate judge in Dougherty County where the judge dropped the felony charges against him because he found no probable cause; James was released on $1,000 bond and only faces the solicitation charge, a misdemeanor.
Albany District Attorney Gregory Edwards said he intends to present all the charges, including the felony manslaughter charges, to a grand jury sometime before March.
The case has received some attention in the local media and Johnson has been misgendered in local reports as well as in police documents. DA Edwards also refers to Johnson by her male birth name.
“Well, I use the given name,” he says. “There is an issue about that and we will let the grand jury know the legal name as well as the other name he is known as.”
Edwards says he has experience trying cases with transgender victims and intends to be respectful when presenting evidence to the 23-member grand jury, a group that meets in secret and will decide whether or not to indict James in the shooting of Johnson.
“I won’t be biased in my presentation,” Edwards says. “The grand jury represents the community.”
But Asberry, who occasionally refers to Johnson as her son, is worried the alleged shooter will not face any charges at all.
“The DA assured me he would take the case before the grand jury to get him indicted, but it is if, only if, the grand jury decides to indict. I’m just afraid because of who she was that [James] is going to get off. I’m so afraid of that,” she says.
“He got out on $1,000 bond and I had to pay $8,000 to bury my son.”
Trans panic defense?
DA Edwards will not comment on the evidence in the case, but Asberry says she knows her daughter was a sex worker and believes her daughter and James knew each other and that he knew she was transgender.
Johnson was found after 2 a.m. on Dec. 6 lying outdoors wearing a black bra and panties, according to a police report. When police arrived at the scene, officers said that Johnson, the victim, was lying outside an apartment in her complex, “screaming for help and repeatedly shouting, ‘I’m gonna die!’” The report also states a black firearm was found near Johnson.
A witness at the scene said he saw Johnson running from her apartment building, according to the police report.
When police entered Johnson’s apartment, they reported there was pornography playing on the TV and several open condom wrappers on the kitchen table. There were also several bullet holes in the living room wall, according to the report.
According to Asberry, her daughter was running from her apartment and suffered a gunshot wound to her thigh and back.
DA Edwards would not discuss the evidence, but Asberry said that James told police his daughter pulled a gun on him and then there was a scuffle resulting in the shooting.
“I don’t know what Mr. James may claim as a defense. If there is an indictment, there will be a trial,” he says.
Asberry said police told her that James also told officers he is not gay and that he thought he was meeting a straight person for sex. But Asberry says her daughter had a profile on backpage.com, a popular website for prostitutes, that clearly stated she was transgender.
“The detective was telling me that he said when he got there he realized she was not a she but a he. But something sexual happened. He’s lying,” Asberry says tearfully.
DA Edwards repeated that he could not discuss evidence or testimony from the suspect. He did note that Georgia does have a “stand your ground” law that allows individuals to take lethal force if they feel they are in imminent danger of serious harm or death.
‘I can’t be this boy anymore’
Asberry said Johnson came out gay at 17 when she was in high school and then came out as transgender when she was 20.
“I asked her, ‘Why you want to dress like that?’ And she said, ‘I know this is hard for you and embarrassing, but I just can’t be that boy anymore,’” Asberry says.
And for four years, Johnson lived full time as a woman, Asberry says, even though it wasn’t easy, especially in South Georgia.
“She was happy. Whatever she set her mind to do, she did it. We loved her and she loved us. I just want justice for my son. I don’t want it to be like his life didn’t matter,” she adds.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs based in New York is tracking the killings of trans women in the U.S., and in 2014, there were 12 known murders. Already in 2015, three trans women of color have been killed.
“2015 has started with three homicides of transgender women of color which is both tragic and overwhelming…which is especially disturbing because we did not have a homicide of a transgender woman until June in 2014,” says Sue Yacka, spokesperson for the NCAVP.