Why Weren’t The Killers Of A Gender Fluid Teen In Iowa Convicted Of A Federal Hate Crime?

“You cannot convince me that he was not killed because of how he was presenting himself,” Kedarie Johnson’s former school counselor said.

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Kedarie Johnson, a 16-year-old high school student in Iowa, stuck out among his peers.

Johnson, who identified as gender fluid, was a black teenager in the tiny, predominantly white city of Burlington. He dated boys and girls, but often dressed as a woman, sometimes going by Kandicee and donning braids, miniskirts, and makeup. The flamboyant teenager was popular amongst fellow high school students. Most accepted — and supported — his gender identity. They said the teen had an unforgettable laugh and a smile that was contagious.

But on a spring evening in 2016, police found Johnson’s body in an empty alleyway, soaked in bleach, his mouth gagged with a plastic bag, and pants pulled down exposing his genitals. He had been shot twice in the chest, as told last year on Oxygen’s "Killer Motive."

Jorge Sanders-Galvez and Jaron Purham, a pair of cousins from St. Louis, were convicted of Johnson’s murder and sentenced to life in prison, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. Police, who identified the two observing Johnson in a grocery store hours before the youth was killed, found Johnson’s backpack, high school identification and shoes at a house the cousins stayed at when they visited Iowa.

One question hung over the court proceedings: Was Johnson’s death a hate crime?

Prosecutors suggested that the teen’s killers picked up Johnson, who was dressed as a girl the night he was killed, with the intent of having sex with him. But, once they discovered he was a boy, they murdered him in a fit of rage, prosecutors alleged. Both Sanders-Galvez and Purham, who were tried separately, deflected blame for the slaying throughout their trials.

“My son didn’t deserve to lose his life just for being who he truly is,” Katrina Johnson, Kedarie’s mother, told producers of ‘Killer Motive.’

“Look, I think it was a hate crime and it needs to be said as such,” Johnson’s former school counselor, Shaunda Campbell, told the New York Times.

“Here was a child — a 16-year-old child — trying to make his way in the world,” she added. “You cannot convince me that he was not killed because of how he was presenting himself.”

The nature of Johnson’s death highlighted the complications in prosecuting those who target people because of their gender identity for hate crimes, which, then and now, no legal precedents exist for.

At the time, newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions was aggressively pursuing various individual hate crime cases across the country, despite federal efforts to roll back certain rights of the LGTBQ community in other areas of society.

“Hate crimes are violent crimes,” Sessions said in a June 2017 speech. “No person should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship,” he added.

Johnson’s case, which caught the then-Attorney General’s attention, led to Sessions sending Christopher Perras, a federal hate crime prosecutor, to Iowa to assist on the case, indicating that the Justice Department might indict Sanders-Galvez and Purham on federal hate crime charges following the state’s trial.

“I think that was the hope of Katrina, Kedarie’s mother, that the federal authorities would look at it as a hate crime and so the U.S. Attorney’s Office was involved and did assist with the trial,” Amy Beavers, the former Des Moines County Attorney, told Oxygen.com.

At the time, Beavers believed the Justice Department was sent to be a part of her case “for seamless prosecution, should an indictment in federal court be handed down,” the Des Moines Register reported in 2017.

In the end, the federal government abandoned their investigation — and have never handed down a hate crime indictment. And, following Sanders-Galvez and Purham’s life prison sentences, the case appears to have drifted into obscurity.

“I think many of us had hoped that the federal authorities might go ahead and prosecute it as a federal hate crime, but my involvement, once the state’s prosecution concluded and they were both sentenced to life without parole, I was never contacted again by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Beavers explained.

“And then Mr. Sessions left, so I don’t know how the case progressed after his departure.”

Sessions, who resigned in 2018, never pursued hate crime charges against Johnson’s killers, and his successor, William Barr, hasn’t made any indication that any kind of hate crime case against the two cousins is moving forward.

“I’m not sure why this fell apart and why this wasn’t pursued,” Heidi Beirich, a hate crimes expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Oxygen.com.

Comparatively, Dylann Roof, who was also sentenced to life in prison without parole for gunning down nine black people in a South Carolina church, was also indicted on federal hate crimes following his state trial.

But, Beirich said the government has a questionable record when it comes to prosecuting hate crimes against transgender people, particularly those of color.

Killer Motive: Getting The News Of Kedarie's Murder Was The Worst Day Katrina's Life

“Transgender people are being killed across this country in scary numbers,” she said. “We see murders on a relatively frequent basis, unfortunately. … It would be good to send a message to the federal government that’s not going to allow people to be targeted who are transgender. There have been so many transgender murders —  the federal government isn’t prioritizing hate crimes as an issue. The system itself is broken.”

Beavers, the former Des Moines County attorney, who left her position there in December 2018, now works as an assistant in the Lee County Attorney’s Office. She said she last spoke to Kedarie’s mother, Katrina, in March 2019, when she attended a memorial for the teen. The career prosecutor of 23 years said case still looms large in her mind.

“It hit all of us,” Beavers said. “This case really means a lot to me. It will be a case I will never forget.”

Beavers is still mystified that the federal government invested resources in Johnson’s case, yet didn't make their case following Sanders-Galvez and Perham’s conviction.

“I was disappointed there didn’t seem to be follow-up about the case, whether federal hate crime charges would be pursued,” she added.

“I don’t know why that was. I would have to presume the federal authorities had reasons for that. I don’t know what they are. And those were never communicated to me.”

In an email to Oxygen.com, a Department of Justice spokesperson was unable to specify why Johnson’s killers were never ultimately indicted. However, the official indicated that the federal hate crimes prosecutor had been sent to Iowa to increase the odds of conviction in the state case. They declined to comment further.

Johnson’s mother, who called her son’s killers “monsters,” said she won’t fully be at peace unless there are hate crime charges. 

“That’s when I can say justice has completely been served,” she also said,

Watch “Killer Motive” Episode 4: “A Hateful Crime” here.

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