Q&A: Murray Wells, 

Attorney for transgender murder victim Duanna Johnson

Last summer, transgender woman Duanna Johnson was the victim of a beating by a Memphis police officer inside the Shelby County Jail. One evening last week, she became the victim of murder.

Johnson's body was discovered near the corner of Hollywood and Staten in North Memphis. Police say she was shot in the head, and witnesses claim to have seen three men running from the scene, but no suspects have been arrested.

Prior to her death, Johnson was suing the city for $1.3 million. Though she lived to see officers Bridges McRae and James Swain fired from the police department, the case was on hold pending possible criminal indictments against the officers.

Her attorney, Murray Wells, spoke with Johnson the day she was killed. — by Bianca Phillips

Flyer: What did you and Johnson talk about the last time you spoke?

Wells: I knew she was going through a tough time. I suggested she go home [to Wisconsin] where her mother was. Duanna was living in a house with no power. She had no money. I told her I'd buy her a bus ticket and give her some money to get there. She called on Sunday and said she was ready to go.

What was life like for her? Because of who she was, she wasn't able to work. People wouldn't accept her. There were two faces: the side of her that was funny and warm and the other side that was tension and frustration.

Johnson's birth name was Duannell, but Memphis police called her Dwayne in their statement about the homicide. They also called her Dwayne after video of her being beaten at the jail was leaked.

I'm pretty offended by the insensitivity of the Memphis Police Department. The very onset of the beating of Duanna was precipitated by them failing and refusing to call her by her name. They've never acknowledged that her name was Duannell or Duanna.

I find it offensive that, with the city taking all these steps to assure the public of how open-minded they are, they would release a press statement that called her Dwayne and called her a male.

What will happen with the lawsuit against the city?

Our intention is not to walk away from the situation. We think harm occurred, and someone needs to be held responsible. We think the lawsuit can still be an effective mechanism to promote policy change in law enforcement.

The only remedy we'll be able to get is a finding that [the police department is] guilty, and the only punishment we can get is monetary damages. The theory is, you make it sting bad enough, and it'll never happen again.

If you win damages, who would get the money?

An estate will be opened up for Duanna, and someone will have to administer her estate. I suspect that would be her mother.

Were the officers who beat Duanna criminally charged?

We expect that McRae will be criminally indicted and will face prison time.

Do you think Duanna's gender identity had anything to do with her murder?

Regardless of who did it or why they did it, she was where she was that night because she had no other place to go. I think being transgender made it hard for her to live a normal life in terms of employment and relationships. Many people think that being transgender was a choice Duanna made for herself, but it was not.

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