It was one year ago, Easter Sunday, when Sasha Wall’s Toyota Corolla was seen idling off a countryside Pee Dee interstate.
A motorist passing through reported an unconscious driver in a parked car, the engine still humming. When paramedics and officers arrived that morning, incident reports show, the driver inside was slouched over into the passenger seat. A deputy noted the gunshot wound to Wall’s neck and the spent shell casing inside the car. Whoever shot Wall, a 29-year-old black transgender woman, likely did so at very close range, police said.
The investigation remains active, said Chesterfield Sheriff's Office Cpl. Lynsee Carroll.
"We're still checking any and all leads," she told The Post and Courier. "Even though it's been over a year ... it's not like we pushed this to the side or anything."
Nationally, on average, at least one in four trans people say they have been the victim of a bias-motivated assault, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Wall was the eighth known trans person to be killed in 2018 in the U.S., HRC data shows. It is not known whether Wall, a resident of Pageland, a small town near the North Carolina border, died as the result of a hate crime.
Wall had shoulder-length black curls, and wore a signature fuchsia lipstick and, in virtually every photo, flashed a confident smirk. She adored fashion and snapping glamour shots any chance she could. Her Facebook profile photo usually changed once a week, sometimes more. She worked a kitchen job at a Pilgrim’s Place chicken restaurant in Marshville, N.C.
Zenia Sanders, 22, her close friend and co-worker, still laughs at the memory of Wall leaving a shift to buy glue after she broke a fake nail in the chicken thigh assembly line.
Some mornings, the two would start their days early so they could stop at a salon and get their nails done before work.
“You stayed ready for the camera. I will miss you my beautiful sister. I cannot sleep,” a friend wrote on Facebook after Wall’s killing. “I hope they find who did this.”
Though Wall’s death was just over a year ago, she wasn’t the most recent case of a trans person being killed in South Carolina.
Five months after Wall was shot in her car, another trans woman, Regina Denise Brown, 53, was killed after Orangeburg police said she was beaten and left for dead inside her home, which was set ablaze.
A year after Wall’s still-unsolved killing, the crime has become a rallying cry for those seeking closure, as well as for those advocating to extend civil protections to LGBTQ South Carolinians.
Here, in a state where a self-avowed white supremacist murdered nine black worshippers during a Bible study in Charleston in 2015, there are no laws on the books bolstering sentences for hate crimes. Only four other states have yet to add these protections: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Wyoming. Last year, Charleston became the only municipality in the state to author its own policy.
The Charleston law makes it so that anyone convicted of violating another “in whole or in part because of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability, or national origin” is also guilty of hate intimidation, a separate offense that comes with a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
After Wall's murder, the only known public vigil for her was organized by someone she never knew.
In the days after the murder, the headlines and news stories about Wall’s death struck a chord with Nathaniel Naomi Simmons-Thorne, a University of South Carolina student who works with at-risk LGBTQ youth and young adults at the Center for Social Equity in Columbia. Simmons-Thorne also identifies as transgender non-binary.
For the better part of a decade, Wall had publicly identified as a trans woman. But news stories about her death and the official police report used male pronouns and Wall’s birth name. In an interview with a Charlotte news station, a law enforcement official referred to her as a man who was a “cross dresser” who “had makeup on and that kind of stuff.”
Simmons-Thorne never knew Wall, but that didn't stop her from organizing a rally in the days after her death.
Wall’s death “resonates with me. ... I get stares, and I get verbally harassed,” she told The Post and Courier. “We are really vulnerable. There’s not really much protecting me from becoming a victim, as well. I just think that it’s really important for the community to be as organized as possible (and) that we have a strong network of people across the state to monitor these situations and to respond to them.”
Though it gained little traction in the most recent legislative session, a proposed bill calls for criminal penalties for those convicted of assaulting, intimidating or threatening an individual "based on race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation or homelessness."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, was sent to the House Judiciary Committee to be taken up when the Legislature reconvenes in 2020.
One of the most common general misconceptions about hate crime laws is that they afford protections to specific marginalized groups, which is not quite the case, said Allison Padilla-Goodman, southeast regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which includes South Carolina and Georgia.
"Everyone is protected by a hate crimes statute, and that's a really important point," she said. "It's about protection and taking people's identities seriously."
Meanwhile, through her state-wide network and contacts within the Black Lives Matter movement, Simmons-Thorne organized a rally and vigil that would draw more than 80 people to the steps of the Statehouse.
Those who gathered at the rally in Columbia burned white candles and held up poster boards with slogans like "Respect black transgender women. Misgendering is violence" and "#SayHerName."
“I’m here to say that Sasha’s life matters, and that all black trans lives matter,” Simmons-Thorne said at the rally, as reported by The State. “Every single one.”
At the rally that day, Sanders stood before the crowd to remind them why they were there.
They were there for Sasha Wall. They were there for Regina Denise Brown. They were there for every other trans person of color whose lives were cut short and couldn't be there to speak out themselves. The isolation of the closet, she said recently in an interview with The Post and Courier, was a space they would never return.
Also at the vigil was Stacy Massard, who does LGBTQ outreach through Unity Center and also works as a human services specialist at University of South Carolina's School of Medicine.
Massard said that while she did not know Wall, she felt compelled to join last year's vigil, which led to other events and gatherings for advocates. At the end of May, the Center for Social Equity and Planned Parenthood in Columbia will jointly hold a panel discussion concerning violence against the trans community. A date and venue have not yet been set.
"It took her death to bring us together, unfortunately," Massard said.
This story has been modified to reflect that Nathaniel Naomi Simmons-Thorne works for the Center for Social Equity and that the same group is hosting a panel at the end of them month.