Insider’s “Deaths in the Family” project is the most comprehensive examination of transgender homicides to date, based on thousands of pages of records and extensive field reporting from Washington to Alabama to raise attention to lives lost. The package, consisting of nine stories delving into the most troubling findings of our analysis, reveals how this nation’s legal system has failed transgender people at all stages, from police to prosecutors, and from judges to juries.
“Deaths in the Family” has contributed an unprecedented body of data about the killings of transgender and gender nonconforming people, filling a shameful gap in federal collection of crime data. The project exposed bias in the legal system, from law enforcement to prosecutors and judges. And it has prompted public conversations about how we as a nation report and track violence targeting transgender people.
The project has been embraced by scholars and advocates steeped in the issue of anti-trans violence. Orie Givens of the Anti-Violence Project said on Twitter, “This is an amazing and also gut-wrenching series of stories by the @thisisinsider team. We have so much work to do to help make the world safer so our transgender siblings live free from harm.” The ACLU’s Gillian Branstetter posted, “This is incredible, and I’m sure an enormous amount of work. I can’t thank you and your team enough.” And Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law posted, “Read the story, read the series. Trans women face violence at every turn — from partners, from society, and from police, prosecutors, and judges.”
The project won the December Sidney Award from The Sidney Hillman Foundation, whose judges said the project was “the most comprehensive accounting of the transgender homicide crisis to date” and called Insider’s findings “shocking.” The reporting has been cited by The Marshall Project and the National Criminal Justice Association.
Insider’s reporting has already spurred the newly elected Mobile County District Attorney in Alabama to commit to reopening one cold investigation, and pushed LA County prosecutors to file manslaughter charges in a case that had languished for a year after a suspect was identified.
We relied on sources including the Human Rights Campaign, Remembering Our Dead, the National Center for Trans Equality, and Out.com, as well as social media posts and searches of local news coverage through Google and Nexis to come up with a list of potential homicides. After submitting public records requests for all of these potential cases and reaching out to all the law enforcement agencies involved, we ultimately corroborated 175 transgender homicides over a 5-year period. We depended heavily on PACER, Westlaw, and dozens and dozens of county court websites in seeking out court records related to the cases where suspects were indicted. We used DocumentCloud to share some of our documents with the public.
We also hand-built a database from the documents we obtained from police, prosecutors, and courts, and supplemented by press reports and source interviews. The biggest difficulty with the data was making sure we were consistent during the hand coding process. We constructed a methodology for what our reporters needed to look out for while going through the documents we collected, and continued to iterate those categories as documents came in. For instance, we accounted for whether the case involved intimate partner violence, or if law enforcement was involved in the death; we tracked the demographics of each victim and suspect. Our team worked together to make sure we were as thorough and accurate as possible while building the database.
Based on that working document, we created a separate spreadsheet from which we pulled our data findings, with a glossary defining how to code each cell. Reporters then hand input the data into that new sheet, with dedicated cells for sourcing notes, and a team of fact-checkers verified our entries cell by cell.
Context about the project:
Amid a spike in anti-trans legislation and hate speech, Insider’s investigations team set out to explore anti-trans violence, gathering information on homicides targeting transgender and gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and two-spirit people from 2017 through 2021 across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Identifying each case was difficult, since the FBI does not track crimes by gender identity. Over the course of 13 months, a team of editors, reporters, and researchers attempted to fill in the gaps. We compiled a list of potential homicides of transgender and gender nonconforming people, then sent public record requests to police and prosecutors in every case, in addition to compiling court records. We ultimately documented 175 transgender homicide victims over a 5-year period — almost certainly an undercount. As we read through the documents and pulled preliminary findings, we began to map out our package, taking note of clusters of intimate partner killings, killings of sex workers, killings by law enforcement, and killings driven by transphobia. As we tracked the outcome of each case, we developed stories that would examine unsolved killings and prosecutorial failures.
In many instances, law enforcement officials refused to hand over their homicide investigation files. In several cases, records were released only after Insider threatened to sue the investigating agency for violating state public records laws. Our reporters supplemented these records with conversations with friends, family, witnesses, jurors, judges, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and advocates to determine what happened.
The resulting reporting is the most comprehensive accounting of transgender homicides ever assembled. Insider’s findings are shocking: Between 2019 and 2021, as political attacks on the transgender community escalated, transgender homicides doubled. We found that most of the victims were Black women, while most of the killers were young men in their teens and 20s. We found a striking failure of accountability — only 16% of cases led to murder convictions, and only one killing over five years resulted in a hate-crimes conviction. Another 61 cases — mostly involving Black transgender victims — remain unsolved to this day.
We found that nearly two-thirds of those killed were misgendered or misnamed by law enforcement in the records we reviewed. This not only showed disrespect to the dead, we found, but, Insider found, disrupted investigations and impacted outcomes in court.
We sent reporters across the country, who dug into cases from Alabama to Washington State, on law enforcement killings, hate crimes, intimate partner violence, the vulnerabilities of sex workers, unsolved cases, prosecutorial missteps, the troubled history of police and the transgender community, and the lethal attack on Club Q, stories that collectively expose the myriad ways that transgender people are at higher risk of violent crime, and face an uphill battle in receiving justice in the courts.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
No news outlet has made a comprehensive effort to obtain primary documents to determine the demographics of victims and suspects in transgender homicides, the circumstances surrounding the killings, and the outcomes of the cases. Nor has any news outlet created a body of work deeply investigating more than a dozen of these homicides to expose in vivid detail how this nation’s legal system has failed transgender people.
There is also no federal agency that tracks homicides against transgender and gender nonconforming people, so we had to compile our 175 cases by hand, using disparate sources and incomplete and sometimes inaccurate press reports.
We submitted public records requests to police and prosecutors in every case, but were frequently stymied by uncooperative agencies. We spent months cajoling custodians and clerks, visiting courthouses around the country in person, and handing over thousands of dollars to secure documents. In several cases, records were released only after Insider’s attorneys threatened to sue the investigating agency for violating state public records laws. We are still pursuing legal action to obtain several key records, post-publication. When our record requests were unsuccessful, we worked with family members who submitted those requests on our behalf as next of kin, or sought out prosecutors and law enforcement officials who might share documents with us directly.
As with most trauma-related reporting, we knew we had to take special care with our human sources, many of whom were still grieving their loved ones. The team completed trainings on trauma-informed reporting, and spent many months working with sources to make sure they understood the scope of the project and the questions we wanted to answer before asking them to sit down for interviews.