Finally, justice for Diamond | Helen Ubiñas

A small group of mourners met Nov. 14. 2015 at the St. Miriam Cathedral in Flourtown to pay their final respects and lay to lay to rest Diamond Williams, a transgender woman murdered in 2013. Monsignor James St. George offered his church and cemetery for the funeral.

Dawn Munro has a vague recollection of bumping into Diamond Williams. Maybe eight or nine years ago — she isn’t sure. The meeting was fleeting, at best.

And yet, there Munro sat, in a Philadelphia courtroom every day of the weeklong trial against the man accused of murdering Williams, a transgender woman.

Sometimes, other than court employees, Munro was alone in the gallery. Usually she sat on the left side of Courtroom 807, a few rows from the back after someone said that was the side for people supporting the deceased. There was always plenty of room.

Williams, 31, was killed in 2013, butchered by Charles Sargent after he picked her up for sex, her body parts scattered in an empty, trash-strewn North Philly lot. Her pelvis was found in the Schuylkill.

“One of the things that moved me deeply was the fact that she died alone,” said Munro, a well-known and respected trans woman who has advocated for trans issues in Philadelphia for decades.

“She had been homeless, she hadn’t been able to take good care of herself, and then the final act of utter disrespect was to dump parts of her all over the place and then blame her for what happened to her.”

One of Sargent’s many outrageous claims as he represented himself during his trial was that he killed Diamond in self-defense after he realized she was transgender and they got into a violent argument.

That sickened Munro, who knows all too well the harrowing reality of discrimination and death for many trans people.

“I felt that someone ought to be there and I kind of elected myself to go,” she said. “Just as one trans person turning up for another who couldn’t speak for herself.”

The case stuck with Munro from the very first she heard of it. She read everything she could about Williams’ slaying; she went to a vigil at LOVE Park  shortly after her death.

When the crowds moved on, Munro didn’t.

“I couldn’t let it go,” she said.

I could relate. I never met Williams, but Williams stuck with me, too.

After she was killed, I spent hours at her grandmother’s Center City apartment trying to learn anything I could about her that wasn’t in the crude early coverage that often stumbled over the proper pronouns to accurately and respectfully identify her. I tried to persuade her grandmother to claim Williams in death in a way that the family couldn’t or wouldn’t in life.

I sat with Naiymah Sanchez at the Medical Examiner’s Office after GALAEI, a queer Latino social-justice organization in North Philly, agreed to claim her ashes when no one else would two years after Williams died.

Camera icon Helen Ubiñas
Naiymah Sanchez, then coordinator of the TransHeath Information Project at GALAEI, claims the ashes of Diamond Williams. Williams was a transgender woman who was brutally killed in 2013. For two years her remains were unclaimed.

After the Rev. James St. George of St. Miriam Cathedral in Flourtown opened his church and its cemetery to bury Williams, I stood over her grave alone in the November dusk and whispered a belated rest in peace.

Williams deserved some peace. She also deserved justice.

“To die alone in the way that she died is one thing, but to have nobody there in the quest for justice for her would have been horrible,” Munro said.

So she sat there, bearing witness, as Sargent claimed it was self-defense how he punctured her skull with a screwdriver and dismembered her with an ax.

She watched in awe as prosecutor Kristen Kemp passionately defended the life of someone many treated as a throwaway.

In closing, Kemp pounded on the table to demonstrate the sound of Sargent chopping up Williams’ body.

“This was a person who mattered, who still matters,” Kemp told me a few days after the trial ended. “Despite what the defendant attempted to do, to silence her, he didn’t.”

As Munro and a handful of people watched and waited on Tuesday, a jury found Sargent guilty after just 28 minutes.

Justice, finally. And yet, I confided in Munro that I had always hoped that Williams’ family would come around.

“One of the things many trans people have to live with,” Munro said, “is that living their truth means they also have to face the truth that they can lose their family.”

I called Williams’ grandmother to let her know about the verdict. I got her voicemail, so I left her a message. The man who was accused of killing Diamond was guilty, I said, sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

That detail of Diamond Williams’ truth, at least, can no longer be denied.