On July 14, 2015, 25-year-old Ashton O'Hara's body was found brutally murdered in a Detroit, MI field.
Last night, nearly six months after the body was found, O'Hara's killer, Larry B. Gaulding, 39, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years for voluntary manslaughter and 10 years for tampering with evidence, to be served concurrently.
O'Hara, who was also known as Jessica Storm, was a Black transgender and genderfluid individual who was using the pronouns he/him at the time of his murder. Sadly, at the time of his death, O'Hara was the 14th confirmed murder of a trans person in 2015 and the 12th of a trans person of color. At nearly 30 murders, 2015 would go on to be a record-breaking year for transgender murders in the U.S. Despite reportedly comprising less than 1% of the world's population, a transgender person is murdered every 29 hours. Unlike so very many of those victims, in what is sadly far too often a rarity for a working class trans person of color, O'Hara was able to receive justice for his untimely death. This surprising show of system support for a transgender life was thanks in part to a highly cooperative Detroit Metropolitan Police Department and a mother, Rebecca O'Hara, who strongly advocated for her child in both the media and through the justice system. Ms. O'Hara also worked closely with Equality Michigan to support her in navigating these systems and achieving justice for Ashton, which didn't initially appear to be guaranteed.
"Just last month, we were heartbroken when the jury came back with a guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter rather than murder one or two, especially since Gaulding showed no signs of remorse throughout the proceedings," said Yvonne Siferd, Director of Victims Services for Equality Michigan. "But, yesterday everything changed. Far surpassing our expectations, Judge Cameron used his judicial discretion and exceeded the sentencing guidelines, which would have otherwise capped at 15 years. Instead, Gaulding was sentenced to 30-60 years in prison, and will likely never again have the opportunity to walk the streets of Detroit or harm another trans woman."
While this sentencing definitely counts as realized justice, the prosecution of the case was initially somewhat hamstrung by Michigan's lack of legal gender identity protections that would have allowed O'Hara's murder to rightly be considered and charged as a hate crime.
"Even though the state could not prosecute this as an anti-trans hate crime, Judge Cameron sent a message that trans lives do matter by providing Ashton's family with equal justice under the law," said Siferd.
Despite the satisfaction that may come in seeing the murder of a trans person treated, investigated, and prosecuted with seriousness and uncharacteristic speed, one cannot lose sight of the enduring loss to Ashton O'Hara's family, friends, and community and what Gaulding's actions has robbed from them.
"This outcome is really bittersweet. Though Gaulding's sentence is a small victory for the trans community, it has come at a very high price. Ashton O'Hara a.k.a. Jessica Storm was a brilliant and beautiful spirit that we lost to soon," Siferd soberly reminded us.
Equality Michigan. 19641 West 7 Mile Road, Detroit MI 48219.