On February 7, 2019, 34 year-old Matthew White, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of multiple charges including murder. The sentence ended his reign of terror on Philadelphia’s transgender community and brought closure to his multiple victims. During sentencing, the Honorable Barbara A. McDermott called White a “predator.”
White’s crime spree began on January 8, 2017, at a house on the 1300 block of North 52nd Street. He had arranged a “date” with a transgender prostituted person whom he had several previous encounters with after meeting on the notorious website Backpage.com. This time, however, White entered the woman’s house, pointed a gun at her head, and demanded money. After learning she did not have any, he demanded money from her two roommates, who were also transgender prostituted persons. The women testified that White, while still pointing the gun to his first victim’s head, stated, “You don’t want this to be a crime scene; give me the money.” White then stole cash and several cellphones. While fleeing the scene, he fired his gun at the women as they chased him out.
The next night, on January 9, White arranged another “date” with a fourth transgender prostituted person. After arriving at her home on the 5400 block of Girard Avenue, he pulled out a gun and said, “You know what this is.” The woman’s boyfriend, 32 year-old Barry Jones, entered the room and, during an ensuing struggle, White shot Jones in the face twice. He subsequently died as a result of his injuries. The woman was also shot in the shoulder. White stole cash and a cellphone before fleeing.
With the women’s help, law enforcement was able to identify White as the perpetrator and arrest him. He was charged with and found guilty of one count of murder of the second degree; two counts of robbery inflicting serious bodily injury upon another (a felony of the first degree); one count of firearms not to be carried without a license (a felony of the third degree); one count of possessing an instrument of crime with intent to employ it criminally (a misdemeanor of the first degree); one count of attempt to commit murder; and one count of aggravated assault (a felony of the first degree).
During the trial, Assistant District Attorney Courtney Malloy statedthat White preyed on transgender prostituted persons thinking they would not go to police because “of the nature of who they are and what they do.” There is wide gulf separating law enforcement and those who identify as transgender – especially those of color, which White’s victims were. A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that almost one in five Black transgender women had been physically or sexually assaulted by a police officer. It has also been observed that many law enforcement officers use homophobic slurs when interacting with trans-identifying individuals. In just five years, there were 856 complaints filed by LGBTQ+ New Yorkers who alleged that officers used derogatory slurs directed towards them. It is no wonder that White thought that his victims – trans women of color – would avoid reporting their victimization to police.
Unfortunately, White is not the only person to deliberately target trans people simply because of who they are. The epidemic of violence against the trans community is prevalent in the United States. In 2017, the FBI reported that there were 106 hate crimes targeting trans individuals – that is a hate crime nearly every 3 days. And in 2018, it was reported that 28 trans individuals were murdered. The ceaseless violence against our country’s transgender community must stop. We must take steps toward a safer future for the transgender community so that they may freely express their true, authentic selves.
White’s belief that prostituted persons would not go to the police out of fear of being prosecuted is why the CSE Institute advocates for the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the sale of sex, while continuing to criminalize the purchase of sex. This holistic approach holds both sex buyers and traffickers criminally culpable accountable while providing resources and exit strategies to prostituted persons. Further, it has had the highest success rate in alleviating the violence, gender inequality, and systematic oppression experienced by those in the commercial sex trade.
Matthew White preyed on Philadelphia’s transgender prostituted persons believing that they would be silent regarding their victimization. But as ADA Malloy stated, “they were heard; the system heard them; [the] jury heard them.” And we, at the CSE Institute, heard them.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.