In a surprise move, James Dixon pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree in the 2013 killing of Islan Nettles, a homicide that prompted protests over the police and district attorney’s handling of the investigation.
“With this conviction, James Dixon has finally been brought to justice for this brutal and lethal assault,” Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, said in an April 4 statement. “Members of the transgender community are far too often the targets of violent crime. I hope that this conviction provides some comfort to Ms. Nettles’ family and friends, and affirms my office’s commitment to protecting members of the LGBTQ community.”
Dixon had twice before rejected offers of a 12-year sentence in exchange for pleading guilty in the killing. He is expected to receive that sentence on April 19 when he appears before Daniel Conviser, the judge who was to hear his case. Dixon will have to serve six-sevenths of that time before being eligible for release.
The plea comes after two days of pre-trial hearings at which Conviser ruled that the oral, written, and videotaped statements he made to police and prosecutors could be used at trial. While those statements certainly implicated Dixon in the death, they also gave some fuel to any defense he might have mounted at trial.
The 21-year-old Nettles, a transgender woman, encountered Dixon and some of his friends on a Harlem street early in the morning on August 17, 2013. Dixon gave varying explanations for what transpired during the encounter, but admitted that he hit Nettles at least twice. She died on August 22 as a result of the injuries she sustained during the attack.
Police initially arrested Paris Wilson, who was 20 in 2013. Wilson, who was charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment in the attack, was present either before or during the assault. In 2013, police had one witness who said she saw Wilson hit Nettles. Dixon surrendered to police with Simone Gordon, Wilson’s mother, on August 21.
In Dixon’s 2013 videotaped statement, which was played in court on April 1, police and prosecutors were clearly skeptical that he had attacked Nettles and repeatedly challenged his story. Their questioning was so intense that at one point, Dixon said, “I’m not making this up.”
At a November 2013 hearing in Wilson’s case, Nicholas Viorst, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Wilson and later against Dixon, said he was not prepared to move forward, adding that the district attorney’s office was “aggressively investigating” the crime and could bring homicide charges against “Mr. Wilson or someone else” in the future. The charges against Wilson were eventually dropped.
Dixon was not arrested and indicted until March 2015. Delores Nettles, Islan’s mother, complained in 2014 when she learned that the district attorney had lost track of Wilson. Activists joined her in mounting repeated protests and applied political pressure to police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The Nettles family and friends as well as activists regularly attended the pre-trial hearings.