On October 15, 2012, a transgender woman named Janette Tovar, 43, was found “not breathing and unresponsive” in her own apartment, in response to a 911 call from her partner, Jonathan Stuart Kenney, 29.
But Tovar had already died from blunt force trauma after Kenney slammed her head on concrete during the middle of an argument early that morning, as The Dallas Morning News reports. In a police affidavit, Kenney later admitted to that act and to having “continued the assault on Complainant Tovar” when the couple arrived home.
Despite these admissions, Kenney will now walk free and pay a $2,500 fine for his crime. He was sentenced this Tuesday to 10 years probation for aggravated assault, rather than murder, after a plea deal was struck. Unless he violates his probation, he will not step foot in prison for Tovar’s death.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Dallas County district attorney’s office noted that “[d]eferred probation keeps the full range of punishment; including life in prison, available to the judge should Mr. Kenney violate his probation.”
The spokesperson added, “We base plea decisions on the evidence available in any specific case and an overriding desire for justice for both victims and those charged with crimes. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Tovar family at this time.”
But the Tovar family wants answers from both the district attorney and state district judge Tracy Holmes, who sentenced Kenney to probation for what was initially a murder case before it was downgraded.
In a phone interview, Tovar’s cousin Marisa Anguiano said of the verdict, “It was a shock but to tell you the truth, I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m not surprised that [Holmes] did this to us again.”
Anguiano is referring to the fact that Kenney’s bond was reduced from $500,000 to $50,000 in December 2012, allowing him to spend nearly the past three years out of jail while awaiting trial.
According to a 2012 arrest affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast, Kenney did not initially tell the responding officers that the couple had “been involved in a physical altercation.” Instead, police were informed of the fight by the couple’s apartment manager—and downstairs neighbor—who told police that he heard Tovar yelling, “Get off me!” through the ceiling. The apartment manager also informed police that Tovar and Kenney fought frequently.
Anguiano told The Daily Beast that Tovar’s family has been effectively stonewalled in their attempts to get more information about the plea bargain.
“To this day, to this very hour and minute, we have no idea how this deal was reached,” she said. “We have never seen a police report, [Kenney’s] statement, no evidence, no case file, no nothing. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
Anguiano added that early on in the case, prosecutors were more communicative with the family but eventually “something changed” and scheduling meetings became more difficult.
“Why are they treating my family the way that they are?” Anguiano said she has asked herself throughout this process. “What could we say except that she was transgender? There seemed to be this bias.”
In a year of unprecedented violence against transgender women, Kenney’s sentence raises questions about the treatment of transgender victims in the criminal justice system. Killings of transgender people are notoriously difficult to investigate and prosecute but, in this case, Kenney had already admitted to causing the injuries that led to Tovar’s death. In the absence of any new information, Anguiano is mystified by the choice to sentence him to probation and accept a plea.
The Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday that the plea bargain “included concerns that Tovar may have also been an aggressor in the fight.”
Anguiano told The Daily Beast that the family had never heard anything to that effect until they saw the report. Without seeing Kenney’s statement, she says, there is no way to know how the district attorney could have come to that conclusion.
Neither Kenney’s attorney Gary Udashen nor Judge Tracy Holmes immediately responded to request for comment.
Anguiano has pledged that she will keep fighting for answers in her cousin’s case.
“She wasn’t just my cousin, she was my best friend,” she told The Daily Beast. “She was everything to me. She was right by my side. We were like shadows for one another.”