Last April, the body of a 26-year-old black transgender woman named Kenne McFadden was recovered from the popular River Walk section of the San Antonio River by a boat operator.
It took police until June to announce that McFadden had likely been pushed before her death by drowning—and until November for 20-year-old Mark Daniel Lewis to be charged with manslaughter and indicted for “recklessly” causing the death of McFadden, who reportedly could not swim.
But a shocking ruling issued late last week by State District Judge Joey Contreras has left the Texas LGBT community reeling because it effectively lets Lewis off the hook.
As the San Antonio Express-News reported, Judge Contreras ruled during a probation revocation hearing that Lewis’ conduct was not criminal wrongdoing, saying, “I think this is a terribly tragedy that occurred,” and further deciding that Lewis, a sex offender, had not violated probation through his actions.
Local transgender advocates are now protesting the judge’s decision—as well as the district attorney’s handling of the case—at a Tuesday night march and rally in San Antonio called “Justice for Kenne.”
“I was heartbroken, and I was shocked, and it’s very exasperating to know that the man who pushed Kenne McFadden to her death is not even going to face a trial,” Ashley Smith, president of the San Antonio Gender Association, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview the day before the rally.
The San Antonio Gender Association organized Tuesday’s rally along with two other Texas-based LGBT groups: Pride Center San Antonio and the Transgender Education Network of Texas. Smith told The Daily Beast that she hopes the Tuesday evening rally will draw attention to the alarming rates of violence faced by transgender women of color—and to the impact that McFadden’s death has had on transgender Texans, who have already been fighting off attempts to pass an anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”
“It’s raised concerns in our community about our own personal safety, in addition to all the other things that were going on last year when we had lawmakers stigmatizing transgender people and making us out to be dangerous,” said Smith.
Republican legislators in Texas tried—and failed—last summer to pass a “bathroom bill” during a special legislative session, in the midst of what would become the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States.
According to the Human Rights Campaign’s tally, McFadden was one of 28 transgender people who were reported killed in 2017.
Like McFadden, the majority of victims were black transgender women. Killings of transgender people only infrequently lead to successful criminal prosecutions—and it wasn’t until last year that a murder of a transgender person was successfully ruled a hate crime under federal law.
The “Justice for Kenne” protest will begin with an afternoon press conference held in front of the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office—the same office that protest organizers claim “poorly represented” McFadden after her death, as the San Antonio Current reported.
Houston-based transgender advocate and writer Monica Roberts, who will be speaking at the rally, called the case “botched” on her TransGriot blog and questioned the decision of the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office to “present [their] evidence during a probation hearing for Lewis”—a context in which Judge Contreras’ decision effectively ruled out a future manslaughter trial, due to a double jeopardy rule.
When asked about criticisms of their representation of McFadden, the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s Office sent a statement to The Daily Beast Monday evening, calling the transgender woman’s death a “tragedy” and adding that their “prayers remain with Kenne’s family.”
“Our office fought for justice for Kenne sought to hold Mark Daniel Lewis accountable for his actions,” the statement read. “Our prosecutors presented compelling evidence that we believed showed that Mark Daniel Lewis was guilty of manslaughter. Unfortunately, the presiding judge disagreed and found the allegation that Lewis violated his probation ‘not true.’ Due to the lower standard of proof in a Motion to Revoke Probation hearing, our office is legally unable to proceed with a full criminal trial against Mark Daniel Lewis.”
The judge’s ruling came despite the fact that Lewis admitted to pushing the intoxicated McFadden during a police interview that was played in court. In that interview, as the Express-News reported, Lewis claimed that he and McFadden had kissed, and that his subsequent use of force was a defensive reaction to McFadden grabbing his butt.
“I didn’t mean to push him into the river,” Lewis reportedly said in the video, misgendering McFadden. “I meant to push him away.”
But as the Express-News also noted, San Antonio Park Police Officer Terry Hardeway testified that McFadden often danced close to people along the River Walk—and that McFadden and Lewis were seen hugging several times along the tourist stretch two days before the young woman’s body was recovered by the boat operator.
Because the judge determined that Lewis’ conduct was not criminal in nature following a probation revocation hearing, there will not be an opportunity for all the facts of the case to be aired in a future criminal trial—and that has left both McFadden’s family and the transgender community feeling like justice has not been served.
The Express-News reported that Joann McFadden, Kenne’s mother, collapsed after the judge’s controversial ruling.
“We need greater confidence that our elected officials are going to do everything they can to make sure that the justice system treats everyone fairly,” Smith said.
Nearly a year since last April, the mystery of Kenne McFadden’s death may have finally been solved—but it’s clear that it remains painfully unresolved.