The Department of Justice will reportedly be involved in a state-level case involving a young teenager whose death broke the hearts of his small community in Iowa. Jeff Sessions reportedly dispatched a federal lawyer to Iowa to aid genderfluid Kedarie Johnson's case. Johnson, who was shot to death in 2016, was a 16-year-old junior at Burlington High where he was well-liked among his peers, according to his mother, Katrina Johnson. But the involvement of a federal lawyer in a local case is a rare phenomenon, especially considering Sessions' record of opposing LGBTQ rights.
For that reason, Sessions' critics find the decision suspicious. In the past, organizations like The Human Rights Campaign have highlighted Sessions' "alarming record" on LGBTQ issues and groups like GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, otherwise known as GLAD, have also spoken against Sessions. Janson Wu, executive director of GLAD, tells Bustle, "Sessions fails to recognize his own role in creating a national climate hostile to transgender community, where transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, are being murdered at an alarming rate."
Even so, Sessions' past decisions on LGBTQ rights have not stopped the present Department of Justice from deploying federal hate crime lawyer Christopher Perras to assist Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers as well as Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan as a county prosecutor against the suspect.
Last year in March, Burlington police stated that it did not believe Johnson's killing amounted to a hate crime. In a statement released by the head of the Burlington criminal investigation unit, Jeff Klein said, "As defined by Iowa Code’s definition of a hate crime, we don’t think it applies to Kedarie’s death. At this point, we have no information that leads us to believe Kedarie was targeted by his killer or killers because of his gender or sexual orientation. Every murder has a component of hate. Any murder is hateful in and of itself."
According to Iowa, a hate crime is executed due to a "person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability, or the person’s association with a person of a certain race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability." In spite of questions asking him to explain the rationale for not viewing the killing as a hate crime, Klein said he could not elaborate on the reason as it would jeopardize the investigation.
Sessions' decision came to light in late September when court documents gained public attention. But some, like Wu, are cautious about the Department of Justice's attention to Johnson's case. Vanita Gupta, who was the head of the civil rights division of Justice Department under Barack Obama's administration, told The New York Times, "[Sessions] has no problem with discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people in jobs, education and other facets of life, but will lean forward in this one case where a transgender individual has been killed."
Gupta was presumably pointing to Sessions' record of declaring no protections for transgender people against discrimination in the workplace or how Sessions pulled back from a policy that would let transgender students use bathrooms in line with their gender identity.
"In less than a year," Wu goes on, "he has reversed Department of Justice policies protecting transgender students and LGBT workers. He has weighed in on the side of the religious right when it comes to nondiscrimination principles that should apply to all. And he is part of an administration that condones white supremacy. You cannot treat a community as less than equal, and then act surprised when people target them for discrimination and violence."