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Palm Beach teen accused of hate crime in beating of transgender woman

By Kathleen Chapman, Palm Beach Post

The two strangers met outside a bar on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach.

One was a 17-year-old high school student out with a friend. The other was an attractive 39-year-old in Capri pants and a silky spaghetti-strap top, separated from her husband in Ohio.

The teen says that she got into their car, and performed oral sex on him in the back seat while his friend drove. They ended up near a lifeguard tower on the island of Palm Beach after midnight. According to the 17-year-old, the woman was on top of him when he saw something he didn't expect under her bikini bottom.

Just as they were about to have sex, he says, he saw she was actually a pre-operative transsexual. She already had breast implants, but her other surgery is not scheduled until later this year.

She denies any sexual activity with the teen and has a different story. But a witness saw what happened next: The teen shouted for help, dragged her through the sand, beat her head against the lifeguard stand and punched out her front teeth.

He goes on trial this week in juvenile court, facing a first-degree felony hate crime charge that may be without precedent in Palm Beach County.

Assistant State Attorney Renelda Mack, chief of the civil rights unit, said she cannot discuss a specific case before trial, especially one involving a juvenile. But she does not remember another hate crime case here with a transsexual victim.

The teen, now 18 and attending summer school, has been on house arrest since the beating in the early morning of July 29, 2006. A juvenile judge will decide if he is guilty and what punishment, if any, he will face.

The teen's attorney, John Brewer, will argue self-defense. Brewer said the 39-year-old threatened to kill him and his family if he told anyone what happened.

"Something flipped in his mind and he thought, 'I've got to bring this guy in; he's going to harm me.' " At that moment, Brewer said, the teen's "whole world just got turned upside down. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is possible." He realized, Brewer said, "I'm in way over my head."

A mechanic from Lake Worth was on the beach that night with friends. He said in a deposition that he was sitting on top of the lifeguard tower when the teen, wearing only boxer shorts, came up and asked for help.

The kid, who looked no older than 18, "was hysterical, freaking out, crying, upset," the witness said.

"He said he picked up a girl, he thought it was a girl; it was a guy." The man had tried to rape him, the teen told the mechanic.

The witness said he suggested that the boy go on home and not tell anyone. But about half an hour later, the kid returned, he said, dragging what looked to be a topless man down the beach by the hand.

He screamed that he was going to kill her and slammed the person's head against the lifeguard stand, the witness said.

The witness jumped off the tower and headed for the boardwalk. The kid came back again, he said, saying he thought he had killed someone and was going to jail. Palm Beach police pulled up right then, the witness said.

They found the victim covered in blood.

The teen's father says he is appalled by what happened and can't believe that the state has not filed charges against the 39-year-old for sex with a minor. Florida law makes it a second-degree felony for a person 24 or older to engage in any sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old.

"I want to know how a 39-year-old man, disguised as a woman, was out there picking up a 17-year-old," the father said.

But the woman, now 40, gives a different version of events. She said in her deposition that she had several drinks over the course of the evening and agreed to go to a party with the two young men because she needed to sober up before driving home. She figured they were in their early 20s.

The teen came onto her aggressively, kissing her, touching her breasts and putting her face in his lap. She said she told him that she was a transsexual and denies that there was any sexual activity or that she was on top of him.

He seemed to be more upset that she rejected his sexual advances, she said, than that she was a transsexual.

The only witness to what happened before the beating, the 17-year-old's friend, was in his own juvenile trouble and violated a court order by going out that night, Brewer said. The friend has his own lawyer, Brewer said, and isn't talking.

Determining mind set can be difficult

Florida law says that a crime is "aggravated by prejudice" when a perpetrator intentionally selects a victim because of a characteristic like race, religion or ethnicity.

Bills recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and introduced in the U.S. Senate would expand hate crime laws to include gender identity. But transsexuals are not included as a protected group under current federal or Florida law. And though sexual orientation is a protected category in Florida, gender is not.

When questioned by prosecutors in her deposition, she said the teen shouted "faggot" while beating her. She thought maybe he was upset that his friend saw him kissing her and was afraid people would think he was gay.

But after living as a woman for more than a decade, she does not consider herself a gay man. She is a woman attracted to men, she said, and she has the right to go anywhere that other straight women would.

Speaking in general, Mack said prosecutors can pursue a hate crime based on the perpetrator's mind set, even if he was mistaken about the person's identity.

For example, someone could be charged for painting a swastika on the driveway of someone he thought was Jewish, even if the person wasn't.

To prove that a person acted with prejudice, prosecutors can use symbols, words that were shouted, statements to police, or even what the person was wearing, Mack said.

In 2005, the last year for which the Florida Attorney General's Office has data, Florida law enforcement agencies reported 206 hate crimes statewide. Arrests in Palm Beach County have included two young men who defaced a Judaica store west of Boca Raton, and juveniles who declared "Guat Day" before going out looking for Guatemalans, Mack said.

"Certainly cases may be stronger if a person sat around the table and plotted and planned," Mack said. "But the law does not require that."

Brewer said that this incident does not come close to the legal standard for hate crime. The word "faggot" didn't surface in the victim's first interview with police or Brewer's own interview with the victim. It was only when questioned by prosecutors, months after the crime, that word was used, Brewer said.

And, he said, his client did not "intentionally select" the victim.

The teen had no intention to meet a transsexual that night, Brewer said. And he was upset because he was deceived about the 39-year-old's gender, Brewer said, not because of prejudice.

She said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post that she doesn't think of herself as the victim of a hate crime. She wants the teen to face consequences for the beating, she said, but didn't want to see him charged as an adult.

"I guess I'm a little more compassionate. ... I didn't want to destroy his life," with a felony charge in adult court, she said.

Brewer said he hopes that both parties can get on with their lives. But he is afraid they both will carry some scars from their chance meeting a year ago.

"I feel sorry for both of them," Brewer said.

Staff researchers Niels Heimeriks and Rachel Schaff contributed to this story.

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