Can a Transgender Woman Get Justice in Texas?

After Aliah Hernandez was brutally beaten in a New Braunfels motel room, her attacker walked away free.

Side profile of Aliah Hernandez in dim lighting.
Aliah Hernandez. Photograph by LeAnn Mueller
Aliah Hernandez. Photograph by LeAnn Mueller
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue with the headline “A ‘Nontraditional’ Victim.”

It was time to tell him. He clearly didn’t know.

They had been in the motel room for about two hours, drinking vodka and smoking a little pot. Now he was sitting next to her, trying to kiss her while she gently held him off.

“There’s something I’ve got to tell you first,” she said. But then she didn’t. She didn’t want to ruin the moment. He began to guess instead.

“Are you married?” No, she wasn’t.

“Do you have kids?” No.

“Whatever it is, I don’t care,” he said. He was really the sweetest guy.

It was a chilly December night in 2014, just a week before Christmas. They had met that afternoon at the drive-thru window of El Nopalito #1 in New Braunfels, where she had worked off and on for the last fifteen years. Her name was Aliah Hernandez, and she was 38, though she looked younger, tall and shapely, with long black hair. His name was Cameron. He was just a baby, she could tell, in his early twenties, with dark curly hair and a goatee. Too young for her, really, but he was attractive, and he obviously thought she was too. “You’re so beautiful,” he told her. “We should go out.” She’d been single for awhile, and the prospect of a date, or even a hookup, seemed good to her. So she gave him her number.

Cameron had begun texting her around eight that evening. Could she come to his house and chill? She didn’t get off until ten, but she agreed. Around ten, another text. His dad was at the house; could they meet at her place instead? That wouldn’t work, since she lived with her brother. How about a motel, he suggested. If she got there first, he said, check in, and he’d pay her back. She got home, showered, and got ready. She did get to the motel first, a little after midnight, but he showed up not long after, and they’d begun getting to know each other.

But she hadn’t gotten up the courage to tell him what he needed to know. Finally he began to show the first hint of impatience. “Well, tell me what you have to tell me.” So she told him.

When Officer J. Lopez of the New Braunfels police arrived at the motel at three-thirty that morning, he found Aliah slumped in the lobby, half-conscious. There was blood on her mouth and hands, and her face and neck were grotesquely swollen and bruised. Her left ear had been partially ripped off, and dangling cartilage was clearly visible. Lopez squatted beside Aliah and asked what had happened. She could barely speak, mumbling something that sounded like “Carmen.”

“He hit me with everything,” she whispered.

Officer Lopez asked for her ID, and she managed to find her Mexican passport. He began to jot down her particulars but then stopped short, looking down at the battered woman next to him. The given name on the passport was not Aliah but Blas. Under “Sexo,” he saw, the passport was clearly marked M.

The victim was transgender.

It was nearly four in the morning when Aliah arrived at the hospital. The inside of her throat was so swollen that she was having trouble breathing, and the ER doctor worried that there might also be damage to her neck or spine. She was airlifted to the Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, where ICU doctors worked to stabilize her.

Eventually Aliah was able to speak well enough to tell the police where Cameron worked: a Mexican restaurant in Gruene. A detective named Rick Groff found him there and asked him to come to the station. His full name was Cameron Wright, and he was a known quantity to the police. He’d been arrested for misdemeanor theft a few years back and had done a short stint in jail for driving without a license.

The first minute of Detective Groff’s videotaped interview with Wright shows a square-jawed young man in a flat-brimmed ball cap, well muscled under his long-sleeved green T-shirt, right hand resting absentmindedly on the crotch of his blue jeans, as he waits alone in a tiny interrogation room for his inquisitor to join him. When Groff finally entered the scene, his technique was textbook good cop. It was just a voluntary interview, he told Wright. He was not under arrest, he could leave anytime, the door was closed only for privacy. Wright relaxed visibly and seemed even more relieved when the detective downplayed the severity of the crime. Someone had gotten hurt and had gone to the hospital, he reported, but it looked like she would be getting out soon, so not to worry. And then came the subtle coaching toward a confession: “I understand people make mistakes, and I think that’s what happened in this situation.”

It worked. Wright corroborated almost every element of Aliah’s story: they’d met at the drive-thru and arranged to get together. Nothing sexual had occurred, but he’d become enraged when she told him she was transgender, and he had beaten her. Wright denied that Aliah had ever lost consciousness, but he confessed to hitting her multiple times. And he admitted something else that suggested that he knew he’d committed a serious crime: he’d stolen Aliah’s phone and deleted the text messages on his own device to hide evidence that the encounter had ever taken place. The stolen phone was gone—he’d thrown it away once he’d left the motel, he told Groff—but he agreed to turn over his phone so that it could be examined.

Groff completed his report for a felony assault, punishable by up to twenty years in prison, and turned it over to the district attorney’s office. “You’re in luck,” an officer told Aliah, who spent two days in the hospital, during which doctors snaked a camera down her throat to assess the damage and surgically repaired her ear, using a plastic bolster to restore its natural shape. “Looks like this guy is going to go to prison.”

But he didn’t. In the months that followed, as Aliah gradually recovered from her injuries, she kept waiting to hear news of his arrest, but the call never came. Three and a half years after the attack, Wright has been charged only with a misdemeanor, and even that case is still pending. (Contacted by Texas Monthly, Wright’s attorney declined to make him available for an interview.)

Meanwhile, as Aliah has struggled for resolution, the rights of transgender people have come under fire across the state and the nation. The 2017 Texas legislative session was consumed by debate over the so-called bathroom bill, a measure meant to require people to use public facilities that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates. Intended ostensibly to protect girls and women from being accosted by men posing as women, the campaign went national, and legislatures across the country debated similar measures.

Then came President Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military, followed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s announcement that her department would no longer consider discrimination complaints based on a person’s gender identity. LGBT advocates have tied the political battles to a concurrent spike in violence against their communities: nationwide, there were 52 hate-related murders of LGBT people in 2017, a twenty-year high. A disproportionate number of those killed, 27, were transgender, including 4 in Texas.

Ensuring that each of those victims gets justice is a local issue, a job not for legislators and cabinet officials but for cops, prosecutors, and jurors—ordinary Texans like the farmers and ranchers in rural Comal County, around New Braunfels. Of course, a crime is a crime, no matter where it occurs in the state. But every community also has its own unwritten code—an understanding about who belongs and who doesn’t, who is worthy and who isn’t. Juries convened to judge perpetrators can wind up judging victims too.

Aliah Hernandez with a swollen and bruised eye.
Aliah in the hospital after the attack.

Prior to that terrifying night in December, Aliah hadn’t had much experience with the police. In Mexico, where she’d grown up, cops usually made problems worse, and she had avoided them since arriving in Texas in 1991, because she was undocumented. But the New Braunfels police seemed to be on her side, at least at first. Not long after she learned of Wright’s confession, however, Aliah began having trouble getting detectives on the phone. When she finally did, she was told the case couldn’t move forward because prosecutors were still waiting for her hospital records to be sent from San Antonio. Weeks went by, and she finally decided to drive down and pick them up herself, delivering them personally to the police department.

On March 30, 2015, Aliah had her first meeting with Jennifer Tharp, the Comal County district attorney. Tharp’s election back in 2010 had made history—at 32, she was the youngest DA the county had ever elected, and the first woman—and she seemed to have a bright political future. In 2015 she was named Prosecutor of the Year by the State Bar of Texas, which singled out, among other things, her work as a victims’ rights advocate. Tharp had very little trial experience when she was first elected, but her chief felony prosecutor, Sammy McCrary, is a twenty-year veteran prosecutor and a holdover from her predecessor’s staff. Under McCrary’s influence, Tharp’s office has developed a reputation for aggressive prosecution. At the same time that Aliah’s case was under investigation, McCrary was pursuing a murder charge against a sixteen-year-old who had punched a classmate in the school hallway, accidentally killing him. 

Aliah had been the victim of a violent crime too, yet she was beginning to suspect that her case was not a priority, a feeling that her meeting with Tharp did little to dispel. Tharp was petite and blond, a picture of professionalism in her nicely tailored suit. She nodded respectfully when Aliah explained that she no longer used the name Blas, which was on all of the police reports and other documents in the case file. The DA asked Aliah what outcome she was looking for in the case and agreed that prison time was warranted. But she couldn’t tell Aliah when her assistant prosecutor would be presenting the case to a grand jury so that it could move to trial. She finally had the hospital reports, thanks to Aliah, but now Tharp said she was waiting on a forensic analysis of Wright’s cellphone, which she described as a key piece of evidence.

Six more weeks went by without an arrest or indictment, and Aliah decided to take her story to Univision San Antonio, the Spanish-language news channel. After taping an interview with Aliah, the reporter contacted the district attorney’s office but was denied an interview. However, Aliah immediately got a call from Tharp—she wanted to meet first thing the next morning. As Aliah remembers the meeting, Tharp was not pleased about the prospect of a TV news report. Prosecutors would be taking the case before a grand jury soon, she told Aliah, and she wanted no more media. The Univision report aired in late May but didn’t lead to any follow-up coverage from other stations or the local papers.

In July, Tharp called Aliah in for a third meeting. This time Aliah brought her best friend, Sami Vela, with her for emotional support, along with a counselor from the Department of Public Safety who had been guiding her through the process of getting the state to help with her hospital bills, which totaled over $22,000. Tharp had bad news. The case had been brought before a grand jury twice, she said—first by an assistant prosecutor, and then by Tharp herself—but both times, the jury had declined to issue an indictment. Tharp had filed a misdemeanor charge instead, for which no grand jury approval was needed. Wright had been charged not with assault but “interfering with an emergency call”—stemming from his theft of Aliah’s phone, which had prevented her from calling the police. The maximum penalty was a year in jail.

Aliah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d been deferential during every visit with Tharp, especially after the Univision interview that had drawn the prosecutor’s ire. But now she found her voice. “What if it had been your family member beaten up that night?” she asked angrily.

“There’s really nothing else we can do,” Tharp replied.

Aliah rose and walked out. She remembers the DPS counselor turning to her and saying that she needed to get some help, because these people weren’t going to do anything for her. Aliah thought of all the cops she had waited on at El Nopalito; she’d even seen Tharp come in for breakfast from time to time. In fact, though she doubted the DA would remember, she’d actually gone to high school with Tharp. She’d still been a skinny kid named Blas in those days, an invisible wallflower, a nobody. And now? Somehow she’d become less than nobody, a person you could beat up and leave unconscious in a motel room with scarcely any consequences.

On her very first day of school in Juan Martín, the small farming town in central Mexico where she’d grown up, Aliah was forced to make a choice. Her teacher directed the class to split into two groups—boys on one side, girls on the other. Aliah, then known as Blas, wasn’t sure on which side of the room she belonged. At home she had ten siblings, five brothers and five sisters, and the boys were expected to help their father care for the family’s livestock when they became old enough. But it was her sisters’ future, preparing meals and keeping the house, that Aliah envisioned for herself, so in the classroom that morning, she walked over to the girls’ side. The entire class erupted in laughter. Her sisters gently but firmly redirected her to the boys’ side, and she reluctantly obeyed. Now she knew for certain what she had already begun to suspect—that she was different. And the town knew too.

Almost everyone in Juan Martín was a practicing Catholic, and the community was very conservative, dominated, not unlike Comal County, by farmers and ranchers. For the next decade, Aliah would be taunted, bullied, and humiliated relentlessly. People threw rocks at her on the street and called her maricón and puto. When she was nine, she was raped. She considered killing herself.

Instead, at fourteen, she told her mother she wanted to go to the United States. Lots of people in Juan Martín worked in El Norte and sent money home, including two of Aliah’s brothers. Joining them wouldn’t just be good for her; she’d seen the difference the money they sent home had made for the entire family. It was the responsible thing to do. Aliah had never discussed her gender identity with her parents, yet her mother knew that her child wasn’t leaving just to find work. She implored Aliah to wait until she was older, no matter how unhappy she was in Juan Martín. But eventually, just before Aliah turned sixteen, she relented.

They learned about the secret that allowed San Antonio’s transgender community to thrive—black market estrogen imported straight up I-35 from Nuevo Laredo.

A brother in New Braunfels found Aliah a job at a Mexican restaurant. She was free from the constant harassment of her hometown, but she dreamed of something better. She needed to learn English, and she wasn’t going to get that busing tables. She heard about adult education classes at New Braunfels High, but to her surprise the principal there insisted she get a proper education and enroll full-time, even though, by then, she was nineteen. She reluctantly agreed, though she kept her evening shifts at the restaurant. She found herself a ninth grader, then still known as Blas, sitting at the back of classrooms filled with kids with whom she could barely communicate.

Among them were a pair of blond-haired sisters who seemed to run the school. The older of the two was a talkative basketball player named Jennifer Tharp, and the younger was a cheerleader. They looked just like each other, slender girls with high cheekbones and eyes that crinkled when they smiled. They were the type of girls Aliah probably wouldn’t have talked to even if she could have, scions of the town’s upper crust, who were mostly fair-skinned descendants of the Germans who’d settled this part of the state. These were the kind of white girls whose families organized Wurstfest every fall and ran the Chamber of Commerce and owned the businesses on the bustling courthouse square. The kind of girls that Spanish-speaking teenagers like Aliah called güera, but not in a derogatory way—more envious, truth be known. Aliah, as it happened, envied more than just Jennifer Tharp’s hair.

She hung out instead with a long-haired, soft-spoken boy named Sami Vela, who became her best friend. They shared the same secret: they were girls born into boys’ bodies. The pair began driving to San Antonio on weekends to visit the Strip, a collection of gay bars along North Main Avenue, not far from San Antonio College. One night they found themselves at a club called the Saint Showbar, which was known for its weekly drag shows. Aliah watched in wonder as the parade of women who had once been men strutted and danced. They were beautiful, their faces soft and smooth, their hips narrow, their busts filling their fabulous dresses, and then some. Afterward the two friends mustered up the courage to meet some of the performers, including a star on the international circuit who had recently won a drag contest in Thailand and sometimes worked in television. Eventually they learned about the secret that allowed San Antonio’s transgender community to thrive—black market estrogen imported straight up I-35 from Nuevo Laredo to the Strip. It was an underground pipeline that paralleled the network that brought in cocaine, meth, and marijuana, except this trade didn’t hook you—it set you free.

Jennifer Tharp in court.
District attorney Jennifer Tharp, whose office has a reputation for hard-charging prosecution. Robin Jerstad/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press
selfie of Aliah Hernandez and her friend dressed for a night out.
Aliah (left) and her best friend Sami Vela earlier this year. Courtesy of Sami Vela
Left: District attorney Jennifer Tharp, whose office has a reputation for hard-charging prosecution. Robin Jerstad/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press
Top: Aliah (left) and her best friend Sami Vela earlier this year. Courtesy of Sami Vela

Aliah never finished high school. In her junior year, she was deported following an immigration raid at the restaurant. She found herself on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, dead broke, with no place to stay and no way to hire a coyote to get her back across. She decided to swim the river, only to be captured and immediately returned to the other side by Border Patrol. With no better plan, she simply tried again the next night, and the night after, until she finally made it safely across. Aliah made her way back to New Braunfels, but she never returned to her classes. “School is not for people like us,” her brother told her. “We are here to work.”

But her English was much better now, and she found a full-time job at El Nopalito, where she eventually worked her way up to the position of manager. She missed her family, but she had Sami, and she had a dream to pursue too. At 25, she began transitioning, beginning with injections of estrogen purchased on the black market that she had discovered in San Antonio. It wasn’t cheap: three shots a month, at $30 each. But that was nothing compared to the surgery. She planned to start with breast implants to give her the figure she wanted and plastic surgery to make her face look more feminine. She figured she needed about $50,000 to make her dream a reality.

The owner at El Nopalito liked her—she was a good manager—and supported her even as the estrogen began to take effect. Reactions from customers were more mixed. Comal County was no Juan Martín, but it was still a conservative place, both socially and politically. For decades, the county has been represented in Washington by Republican Lamar Smith, a Christian Scientist who made his name as an anti-immigrant crusader in the nineties. (Comal County has a sizable and growing Hispanic community, 27 percent of the population, but one that is conspicuously marginalized politically, with no elected officials in county offices.) Comal’s state senator is Donna Campbell, a pro-life physician and one of the legislature’s most conservative members. From time to time a customer would turn Aliah away as she approached a table; occasionally the owner would toss those customers out if he was already in a foul mood.

Once Aliah got her breasts, she began to look and feel like the person she wanted to be and discovered, to her delight, that many customers didn’t look twice as she went by—she was simply an unusually tall woman with a nice figure.

Sami was transitioning too. Now when they went to clubs, they danced and had a good time, instead of sitting in the dark by themselves. Aliah had spent her teenage years toiling away in the back of Mexican restaurants, living with her brother, and sending all her money home. Now she was making up for lost time, but there was something missing. She wanted love.

In 2010 she moved to Las Vegas, a place she’d visited once or twice before. It was the anything-goes attitude, the utter lack of judgment, that drew her back. It made her feel free. She began making good money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant, more than she’d ever made in New Braunfels, and the Vegas club scene was even better than San Antonio’s. When men approached her in bars, she made a habit of telling them straight away that she was transgender. Some walked away, but some didn’t, and eventually she met the man who would become her first real boyfriend, the first man with whom she’d ever really been in love. They lived together for several years, but he was an alcoholic, and eventually the relationship soured. Aliah found herself depressed, isolated from her friends and family back in Texas and Mexico, so much so that she decided to make a drastic change. She moved back to Mexico. Her parents were shocked at her appearance—her mom seemed to think she’d only grown her hair long and begun wearing women’s clothes—but they accepted her, and her siblings, now all grown, with families of their own, did too.

Neither of Aliah’s parents had ever been on an airplane, and with the money she’d saved, she flew the three of them to Cancún for a beach vacation. It felt different to be in Mexico now that she had a little money of her own. But in some ways, she found, she was still an outcast. “We don’t want people like you here,” the bouncer at a Cancún club told her. In Vegas, she’d gone into any club she pleased; she’d even been pulled out of the line, along with other well-dressed women, and ushered to the front by the doorman. Still, she enjoyed being near her family again and thought maybe she could stay in Mexico. She took a few classes at a beauty school in Celaya, a city not far from Juan Martín, but decided it wasn’t for her. She considered opening a bar of her own, but when word got out, local gangsters stopped her on the street and demanded a monthly percentage. In the end, she decided to go back to New Braunfels. It wasn’t Vegas, but at least she’d have her friends, her brother, and a job waiting for her at El Nopalito.

This time she had the money to hire a coyote, but the trip was no less harrowing. It took a week to get across, beginning with four days at a safe house in Nuevo Laredo, followed by a furtive nighttime crossing of the river in a boat, then an all-night hike through the desert around an interior checkpoint north of Laredo.

Back in New Braunfels, she did manage to get back on at El Nopalito, but only as a server this time; a new manager had taken her place. She’d been home a few months when she saw Cameron Wright at the drive-thru window. She made the date with him, and then she broke her rule about dates. Why didn’t she tell him up front or at least text him before he got to the hotel? She just needed something good in her life. “We are all looking for love,” she liked to tell her friends.

In the months that followed the grand jury’s refusal to indict her attacker, Aliah stewed. Interactions with investigators that had seemed vaguely troublesome at the time now struck her as far darker in retrospect: the chumminess of the detective who had interviewed Wright; a passing comment from a cop that Wright seemed like an all right guy who was trying to get his life on track; Tharp’s coldness after the Univision interview. She felt certain now that nobody had ever really cared about her case. She had risked her life to get back here because she thought it was a safer place for someone like her, but now it seemed like she had been wrong. Still, she wasn’t going to let the case go.

Aliah remembered waking up and looking for her phone, not being able to find it, and dragging herself—half walking, half crawling—to the lobby.

Aliah found the name of a gay attorney in New Braunfels who agreed to meet and discuss her situation. The attorney told Aliah what she had already guessed: that it was rare for a grand jury to issue a no-bill—that is, a refusal to indict for a crime presented by prosecutors—and it almost never happened in Comal County, where grand juries were typically made up of law-and-order conservatives. The entire process heavily favors the state. Prosecutors must convince only nine of the twelve grand jurors that there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred, a much lower bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard employed later by a trial jury. For a grand jury, the accused isn’t even there and has no right to present evidence; grand jurors hear only from the police or any other witnesses prosecutors want to call. A good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich, as the old saw goes. In Aliah’s case, Tharp had Wright’s statement to police, his clumsy effort to conceal the crime, and gruesome hospital photos. What more could she possibly need?

The attorney suggested she look for help outside of Comal County, and Aliah found Lambda Legal, a nonprofit known for its work on behalf of LGBT clients. After months of unreturned calls to Tharp’s office, Aliah’s Lambda attorney, Stefan Johnson, eventually managed to collect the entire file on the case, which he turned over to an FBI agent in San Antonio, who agreed to look for any possible federal cases that might be brought on Aliah’s behalf. Meeting with federal authorities, Aliah finally felt that her case was being taken seriously, but looking over the evidence collected by the police was more difficult than she had anticipated. It was the first time she had seen photos of the crime scene. The room was in disarray—both beds knocked askew, blood on the carpet and the bathroom linoleum.

As she studied the pictures, the night began to come back to her. In her recollection, Wright had grabbed her wrists first. She remembered thinking that if she could only make it to the door and out into the parking lot, she’d be okay. But his grip was like iron. “I hate you fucking people!” he shouted, and she was still trying to talk him down when he reared his head back and butted her in the forehead. That’s when she knew she was in for a beating. She remembered him taking the phone out of her hand at one point as she tried to call for help. Then he was on top of her, whaling away until she lost consciousness. She remembered waking up and looking for her phone, not being able to find it, and dragging herself—half walking, half crawling—to the lobby.

Now the agent showed her something else. Blood had pooled in the narrow space between the wall and the bed farther from the door, suggesting that she had lain there for some time. She remembered that he’d beaten her near the door, and then she had crawled toward the bathroom, but she had no recollection of having been behind the bed like that.

In the end, there was nothing the FBI could do for Aliah. Attacks like this were alarmingly common, and federal authorities were well aware of the problem—in the two and a half years following Aliah’s beating, 58 transgender women had been murdered nationwide, according to a running tally kept by Lambda Legal. But these were crimes for state prosecutors. The feds would get involved only in a civil rights case, and proving that Aliah had been discriminated against by Comal County—or that she had been the victim of a hate crime—would be a tall order. Her only recourse, it seemed, was convincing Jennifer Tharp to act.

Outer view of a La Quinta Inn.
The motel in New Braunfels (now renamed), where the assault occurred.Photograph by Callie Richmond

I met Tharp in her office at the Comal County Courthouse Annex building in late February. She was cordial but brusque. More than anything, she seemed tired. She was nearing the end of a primary campaign in which she had drawn three credible opponents—two former Comal County prosecutors and a well-respected New Braunfels defense attorney. A backlog of untried felony cases—a product, her opponents argued, of Tharp’s unwillingness to offer reasonable plea deals—had become the key issue in the race. One of her challengers had earned the endorsement of the local sheriffs’ association, a smarting blow for the incumbent.

Tharp insisted there wasn’t much she could say about why Aliah’s case was no-billed, since grand jury proceedings are kept strictly confidential by law. In fact, sometime between our initial phone conversation—in which she told me that she personally had taken the case before a grand jury—and our interview two weeks later, Tharp decided that the process was so secret that she could not even reveal whether the case had been presented to a grand jury at all, notwithstanding the fact that she had already confirmed as much.

We were joined, to my surprise, by Tharp’s chief felony prosecutor, Sammy McCrary. Lean and intense, McCrary is very much Tharp’s right-hand man, and her continued deference to his judgment is widely considered—by the county’s defense attorneys, at any rate—to be the chief reason for the office’s hard-charging reputation.

Tharp was deferential to McCrary in our interview as well. Although her lieutenant had never actually worked on the case in question, Tharp let him explain to me why the case wasn’t a “slam dunk” for the prosecution, despite the damning evidence available. The problem, as McCrary saw it, was that the case involved a “nontraditional” victim—in fact, the first transgender victim in Comal County that either prosecutor could remember. “We typically get conservative jurors here. This county is known for that,” he said.

I asked what a prosecutor could do to work around prejudice against certain kinds of victims.

“ ‘Work around’ it?” Tharp replied.

“I don’t know that I’d try to work around it,” McCrary interjected. “If twelve citizens of this county don’t want to do something, then so be it,” he said. “I’m not going to ‘work around.’ No, I would never do that.”

McCrary knew the case was a loser from day one, he told me. As he saw it, the severity of the beating wasn’t the decisive fact. The case instead hinged on whether or not, at the time the date was arranged, Wright knew the victim was transgender. “If the grand jury believes that the defendant knew that the victim was a man and went to the hotel and then just twisted off and beat up this person, I think you can get a conviction,” he said. “But if the grand jury believes that he truly thought he was meeting a woman . . . and somewhere in the middle of that, he found out that it wasn’t, and he was surprised by that and did what he did—I don’t think you’ll ever get a conviction.”

McCrary was suggesting that a grand juror might expect Wright to have a hostile reaction in that scenario. But Wright hadn’t just struck Aliah once and left the room, I pointed out. He had beaten her unconscious while telling her, “You’re going to die tonight”—a fact that he didn’t deny to police. The grand jury had let a serious crime go unpunished. What if Wright did it again? “Can we all agree that Cameron Wright is a dangerous person?” I asked.

We couldn’t.

“I can agree it was a horrific beating,” McCrary said. He went on to describe other reasons the case was a loser, besides the victim being “nontraditional.” Aliah, not the defendant, had brought vodka and marijuana to the room, he pointed out, a fact that would allow a defense attorney to weave a tale of seduction: a degenerate luring an unsuspecting man to her room and plying him with whatever it took to get what she wanted. But there were obvious problems with this narrative. Wasn’t it Aliah who had prevented anything sexual from happening in the first place, I asked? “There’s more than one way a jury could look at that,” McCrary countered.

Aliah was also undocumented, he noted, a fact that a defense attorney bent on undermining her credibility might mention in front of the jury, even if it weren’t legally admissible or relevant to the case. Now he was beginning to sound like a defense attorney himself, though it wasn’t clear whom he was defending: Wright, for his savage act of violence; the grand jurors, for declining to judge him for it; or the district attorney’s office, for failing to persuade the jurors that they should.

If there was no getting around the prevailing community values of the grand jury, then why take a second stab at it, I asked? Why did Tharp decide to take the case to the grand jury a second time and to present it herself? Tharp was silent for several seconds. Finally she said, “Personally, I felt strongly that what happened to her was wrong.”

“He definitely went to an extreme with the beating,” McCrary conceded. But the deciding factor, he insisted, was still whether Wright had known what he was getting into when he had initiated the date. “I think if he knew and went and did it, you get a conviction. If he didn’t know and did it, I think you lose. That’s my assessment of the case.”

Last fall, Aliah quit her job at El Nopalito and moved to a town nearby (she wants her location confidential). She hadn’t felt safe in New Braunfels since the attack and had stopped going out with friends. Eventually she decided she couldn’t stay there at all. Wright, meanwhile, was still at large. He’d been arrested twice in the intervening years, for driving without a license, but was turned loose each time. Originally Tharp was seeking three hundred days in jail for the misdemeanor charge she had filed back in the summer of 2015, but the case had been postponed repeatedly, and with each delay the offer had gotten more and more lenient. Now her misdemeanor prosecutor was seeking probation with just ninety days jail time.

Aliah told me she hadn’t been the same since the attack; she was more reticent, more leery of meeting new people. At the same time, however, the experience—working with Lambda Legal, hearing about the rallies in Austin against the bathroom bill, being taken seriously by the FBI—had made her feel oddly empowered, like she was part of a movement. “People like me, we are human beings,” she said. “I want to tell my story to everyone, and I want to tell everyone like me: Don’t go to Comal County. We are not safe there.”

On March 6, boosted by an endorsement from Congressman Lamar Smith, Jennifer Tharp won the Republican primary, narrowly avoiding a runoff. With no serious Democratic opposition, she’ll begin a third term in January. As it happened, Wright was scheduled for a plea hearing at the courthouse the very next morning, his ninth such setting over the last two years. The result was the same: nobody appeared. The district attorney’s office had agreed to another postponement. Justice, such as it was, would have to wait. 


Magazine Latest