Travesty of justice
When is a murder not a murder? When the victim is transsexual.
by Kevin Rothstein
There is no one to answer for the death of Chanelle Pickett,
a pre-operative transsexual whose one-night stand ended with a vicious beating
in the bedroom of a Watertown apartment in November 1995. The man who took her
home that night was found guilty May 3 only of punching Pickett in the face --
and not, as police and prosecutors charged, of wrapping his hands around her throat and squeezing the life out of her.
Nearly a month after the verdict was delivered, the local transgendered
community and others remain outraged by the acquittal of William C. Palmer,
Jr., 35, a computer programmer who took Pickett home after meeting her at the
Playland Café. On May 16, Palmer was sentenced to two years in prison
(see "Justice" this page ). In the weeks since a Middlesex County jury aquitted
Palmer of Pickett's death, trial observers have charged that Palmer used a
top-notch team of lawyers (including a nationally known forensic expert who
testified for O.J. Simpson) to manipulate a homosexual panic defense -- and get
away with murder.
On November 20, just hours after Palmer had brought Pickett home,
police found the frequent Playland patron lying face down in a pool of blood.
The room was disheveled. Cocaine and a homemade pipe had been swept into the
An autopsy showed that fluid had accumulated in Pickett's lungs and brain.
This evidence, together with hemorrhages found on her neck muscles, led a
medical examiner to conclude that she had been strangled -- and possibly
suffocated with a piece of cloth -- for at least eight consecutive minutes.
According to Palmer's trial testimony, trouble started when he discovered that
Pickett had a penis and asked her to leave his apartment. Instead of leaving,
Pickett allegedly attacked Palmer, screaming "God will never die," and "the
devil is king." Palmer testified that he got her to quiet down by sitting on
her buttocks and holding her shoulders down. "I used enough force to stabilize
him. . . . I intended to get him out of my house," Palmer said,
adding that Pickett was still breathing when he released her.
Throughout the trial, Palmer's defense team emphasized that Palmer had no idea
he had picked up a man. His lawyers even tried to introduce as evidence a
segment from the talk show Geraldo entitled "Dead Ringers, Twisted Tales
of Twins." On the show, Pickett appeared with her twin Gabrielle, also a
pre-operative transsexual, and said she fooled men "all the time."
Describing Pickett as he first saw her at Playland shortly before midnight on
November 19, Palmer carefully testified: "She was very attractive. She had nice
curly hair, lipstick, full face, smelled nice, nice mannerisms."
He then told the jury how, upon their return to his Watertown apartment, the
two first cooked and smoked crack, and then began to get intimate. "Chanelle
Pickett reached over and removed my boxer shorts from my waist area. At that
time she bent over and began to give me oral sex," he said. "We were getting
romantic and I reached down and discovered Chanelle Pickett was a
man. . . . I jumped up and I said `You're out of here' and
turned the light on."
Under questioning from his lead attorney, Walter Price, Palmer then painted a
picture of a transsexual furious at being denied sex. "It was frightening. All
of a sudden it turned from a soft voice to not just a man but a crazed man who
began banging the walls and preaching. Crazy talk that made no sense
whatsoever," he said.
At this point in his testimony, Palmer began referring to Pickett as "he"
rather than "she." As in, "I approached the bed and he kicked me in the chest,
just a violent blow."
Palmer's he/she switch was apparently motivated by the idea that a jury,
confronted with a heterosexual man who willingly dabbled in transsexual sex,
would believe such a man capable of stuffing a comforter down someone's throat
and choking him to death -- the scenario suggested by Dr. Stanton Kessler, the
state's forensic pathologist. But a regular guy, a onetime construction worker
who worked his way up to a good job at UNISYS -- a regular guy who felt up a
girl and found a penis beneath her silk panties -- would garner sympathy.
The strategy evidently worked, which angers local transsexuals. "Is his
defense, then, that he was so upset that this person had a penis?" asks Nancy
Nangeroni, a Cambridge activist for Transexual Menace, which tracks cases of
violence against transgenders. "Is the fact that someone's genitals are not the
shape you expect them to be grounds for murder?
"[The jurors] let their homophobia, their transphobia, get the better of
them," she adds. "I feel they did not do their job and, frankly, I hope this
keeps them awake at night."
Others wondered what the outcome of the case would have been if Palmer had
been the one found dead and a poor black transsexual who used drugs had been
charged with murder. Another assault-and-battery conviction? "No way," says
Watertown Police Captain Edward Deveau, who headed the investigation into
'The story he told just didn't add up'
To investigators, the notion that Palmer didn't know Pickett was a man
dressed as a woman when he brought her home from the Playland Café is
ludicrous. Deveau said in an interview after the trial that police assumed
Palmer was lying after they visited Playland themselves. Their own observations
of the bar, coupled with Palmer's admission that he had previously visited
Playland and Jacques -- the only two transsexual bars in Boston -- made
Palmer's claim seem implausible. And that doesn't even take into account the
fact that six other transsexuals stepped forward to say they'd had previous
encounters with Palmer. Of the two that Judge Robert A. Barton allowed to
testify, both said they had given Palmer blowjobs.
"It's obvious that an argument or something happened [at Palmer's apartment]
that led to her death. But the story he told about being surprised just didn't
add up," Deveau says.
On the stand, Palmer changed his story from his original statement to police
-- that he had stepped into the bar for a beer -- and said that he went to
Combat Zone bars like the Playland every so often, but only to buy
cocaine. Deveau didn't buy that either. And neither did Assistant District
Attorney Adrienne Lynch, who asked the jury during closing arguments: "Do you
honestly think that Playland and Jacques are the only places he could get
cocaine in Boston? Or is it the only place in Boston he could get cocaine
and a transsexual date?"
Prosecutors, meanwhile, laid out a bedroom scenario quite different from the
one Palmer described. Lynch pointed to the lacy top of the purple negligee
Pickett wore the night she died as evidence that Pickett's gender would have
been obvious from her lack of breasts. And physical evidence suggested, but
couldn't prove, that more than just an interrupted blowjob had occurred.
Investigators found a stain on Pickett's jeans containing semen and saliva.
Tests showed the semen could not have been Palmer's, but that the saliva could
have been his. As Lynch hypothesized during closing arguments, the stain was
"consistent with Chanelle Pickett ejaculating in the defendant's mouth and the
defendant spitting it out in the crotch of those jeans."
As for why Palmer attacked Pickett in the first place, Lynch told the jury:
"Chanelle Pickett was killed because she made too much noise. She made too much
noise and William Palmer would be found out. She made too much noise and he
wanted her to shut up."
'They didn't do a complete job'
But in a final twist reminiscent of the way O.J. Simpson's defense team
devastated the credibility of physical evidence collected by the prosecution,
experts brought in by Palmer's lawyers raised doubts about the way Pickett
died. The only evidence linking Palmer's hands to Pickett's throat was the
autopsy performed by state forensic pathologist Kessler -- which found bruises
and hemorrhages on Pickett's neck muscles.
Dr. Michael Baden, who has investigated genocide in Bosnia and the
assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King -- and who took the
stand for the defense during the O.J. Simpson murder trial -- testified that
there was not enough evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Pickett
had been strangled to death. And Dr. Charles Wetli, an expert on cocaine's
effect on the body, testified that the cocaine Pickett had inhaled that night
could have caused her death. But he added that not enough tests had been done
to show whether that had killed her.
Taken together, Baden and Wetli's testimony led the jury to conclude that
Pickett's autopsy was incomplete and inconclusive. Facing the media after the
verdict, one juror pointed specifically to the medical evidence as the fatal
flaw in the prosecution's case. "They didn't do a complete job," said juror
Robert Cunningham, referring to the autopsy.
'It could have happened to anyone'
After the verdict was read, Palmer and his family emerged from the
courtroom. He clutched a Bible in one hand and held onto his girlfriend with
the other. Facing the television cameras that had waited three days for the
verdict, he said, "There's a lot of remorse for the Pickett family." He also
reiterated his innocence.
Those who knew Pickett, meanwhile, saw no justice in the verdict. "It's a
tragedy," says Joseph Michael Raedy, who has tended bar at Playland for eight
years and knew the Pickett twins. Raedy, who testified that he had seen Palmer
at Playland on several occasions prior to the night he picked up Pickett,
questioned how Palmer could claim that Pickett's death was an accident given
that he never dialed 911 for help, either after their fight or the next
morning. "He didn't give a shit," Raedy says. "It could have happened to anyone
who was ever with him."
On May 16, citing what he called the "vicious beating" of Chanelle Pickett,
Judge Robert A. Barton sentenced William Palmer to two years in prison for
assault and battery. The sentence exceeded the prosecution's request for 18
months of jail time; if Barton had followed the court's sentencing guidelines,
Palmer would have received only probation. Palmer will spend two years in the
Billerica House of Corrections, with six months suspended for five years.
"This sends a clear message to the inadequacy of the jury's ruling,"
Transexual Menace spokesperson Nancy Nangeroni said after the sentencing.
Nearly 25 other transgenders and their supporters joined Nangeroni outside the
Middlesex Courthouse in Cambridge the morning of Palmer's sentencing to call
attention to violence against transgendered people -- violence that often goes
unpunished. Activists bore a copy of a letter from US Congressman Barney Frank
to Attorney General Janet Reno, urging the Justice Department to begin an
inquiry into violence against transgenders. Frank also asked the Justice
Department to begin compiling statistics to better track such violence. Many
demonstrators pointed to Palmer's murder acquittal as proof that transgenders
are not being served by this country's system of justice.
"There's just a feeling that if these people were rich white boys, things
would have come out very differently," said transsexual Stacey Montgomery.
But Judge Barton, perhaps, saw it differently. In sentencing Palmer, he
addressed lead defense attorney Walter Prince: "This defendant should kiss the
earth you walk on," he said.
Somebody is listening.
Kevin Rothstein is a freelance writer living in Brookline.
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