The U.S. Justice Department sent an experienced federal hate crimes lawyer to Iowa to help prosecute a man charged with murdering a transgender high school student last year. The New York Times calls it “a highly unusual move that officials said was personally initiated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” Sessions is sending a signal that he has made a priority of fighting violence against transgender people individually, even as he has rolled back legal protections for them collectively. DOJ rarely assigns its lawyers to serve as local prosecutors, and only in cases in which they can provide expertise in areas that the federal government views as significant. By doing so in this case, Sessions put the weight of the government behind a small-city murder case with overtones of gender identity and sexuality.
Kedarie Johnson, 16, of Burlington, Ia., was shot to death in March 2016. Family and friends said he was gay, identified as both male and female and sometimes going by the name Kandicee. Christopher Perras, a Justice Department lawyer, will serve as a county prosecutor in the case. Sessions’s civil rights policy is coming into focus. As a senator from Alabama, he spoke out against same-sex marriage and voted against expanding federal hate crimes laws to protect transgender people. He has declared that DOJ no longer considers gay or transgender people to be protected from workplace discrimination and reversed a policy encouraging schools to let transgender students use bathrooms that fit their gender identities. He has brought several hate crime cases, including one against a man accused of burning a mosque. He condemned white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., far more forcefully than did the president. He has vowed tough action against hate crimes, tying enforcement to his tough stance against violence.