Duanna Johnson made headlines when a video of her being beaten by Memphis cops hit the Internet in June; just 4 months later, she was murdered in a back alley
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It took a bloody jailhouse beating by police to bring Duanna Johnson out of the shadows.
With a video of the beating making the rounds on the Internet, people who would never have known she existed — and likely paid her little mind if they did — were suddenly talking about her.
Angry residents sent letters to the local newspaper and a federal grand jury launched an investigation. The mayor and police chief voiced outrage at her treatment.
But it wasn’t long before Johnson, a 43-year-old, 6-foot-5 transgender prostitute, slipped out of the spotlight and back to working the dark streets of a tough inner-city neighborhood, little noticed once again by mainstream Memphis.
And there she died with a bullet in her brain.
"She didn’t deserve to be killed, and she didn’t deserve to be beaten like they did. No matter what gender she was, she was still a human being," said her mother, Hazel Skinner. "She was God’s child."
The video of Johnson, who was black, being repeatedly pounded in the face by a white policeman hit Memphis TV and the Internet in June. Johnson vowed a lawsuit against the city, drawing praise from civil rights advocates and gay rights groups.
Two policemen were fired and one is awaiting trial on a civil rights charge. But pursuing a lawsuit will fall to Johnson’s family. Her fight is over.
Much of Johnson’s childhood was spent in Memphis as a boy named Duannel. The family left Tennessee when Duannel was about 12, settling primarily in Wisconsin and the Chicago area.
Johnson was shot to death near midnight Nov. 6 on a street corner a few blocks from her house. Police have no suspects or motive. Richard Janikowski, a University of Memphis criminologist, said prostitute assaults are common and difficult to solve.
Johnson returned a year-and-a-half ago to Memphis, where the annual homicide rate had already topped 100 by early November. Memphis, population 640,000, had 128 homicides in 2007, a level Janikowski said is not unusual for a city with a 26 percent poverty rate.
Johnson was living alone in a tiny, red brick house with no utilities in a low-income neighborhood dotted with boarded-up buildings and overgrown lots. Unemployed, she made her living walking the streets, flagging down motorists, offering sex for sale.
It was a hard, dangerous life. Even her mother knew little about her day-to-day affairs.
Skinner, who lives in Kenosha, Wis., said she was pressing Johnson to give up the street life that had led to a half dozen arrests in Memphis for prostitution or possession of drug paraphernalia.
As Duannel, Johnson was in and out of prison in Wisconsin from 1985 to 1992 on battery and theft convictions. As Duanna, she drew a three-year prison sentence in New York in 2000 for attempted robbery. In both states, Johnson was a habitual parole violator.
"She wanted to get her life together," Skinner said. "I’d say, ‘Duanna, I’m praying and I want you to pray too.’ We talked about going back to school or working on computers or doing hair."
Casey Lanham, co-founder of a transgender support group called Perpetual Transition, said Johnson, who weighed about 200 pounds and had masculine facial features, was easily identified as transgender and that made getting a job difficult.
"Duanna wouldn’t have been out there if she hadn’t been forced to be," Lanham said. "And there are a lot of trans women who are forced to go that way."
The Memphis support group has about 30 active members but the total number of transgender residents in the city is unknown. "It’s a very marginalized community," Lanham said.
Johnson began living as a female in her 30s after moving to New York, undergoing hormone therapy and getting breast implants.
"But all her life she always told me, Mom, I’ve never been a boy or a man. I’ve always been a girl or a woman," Skinner said.
Skinner said she knew little about Johnson’s private life before she moved to Memphis.
"She did office work as far as I know. That’s what she told me," she said.
Hattie Mae Benson, an elderly neighbor, described Johnson as polite and friendly.
"We talked a lot of times, just about how the world is going and this and that," Benson said. "She was just like any other lady to talk to."
Benson said she was unaware that Johnson was transgender.
"I just couldn’t think about it when I heard somebody had killed her," she said. "I just didn’t know what to think."
Murray Wells, a lawyer hired by Johnson after the beating, said the homicide investigation has not determined if she was the victim of a hate crime.
"But because of who she was is why she was there," he said. "If she wasn’t a transgender woman, it wouldn’t have happened."
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