Thursday, December 8

Tierramarie Lewis never mentioned by name as her killer sentenced to prison

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The sentencing hearing lasted less than 10 minutes. Nobody in the courtroom — not the prosecutor, the judge, the defense attorney or the man being sent to prison — mentioned the name of Tierramarie Lewis, the 36-year old trans woman killed in 2021.

Duane Lunsford, 27, never said why he killed Lewis, though during Monday’s hearing  prosecutors said that he stalked her and “in cold blood shot the victim.”

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Kenneth Callahan sentenced Lunsford to serve at least 18 years in prison, with the possible addition of 5 1/2 more under a new law that allows prison officials to extend the sentences of people convicted of certain violent crimes.

Lunsford was initially charged with aggravated murder but as part of an agreement,  pleaded guilty in late August to a less serious charge of  involuntary manslaughter, along with felonious assault and gun charges.

On June 12, 2021, Cleveland police responded to a call for gunshots on a residential section of E. 79th Street and found Lewis, face down on the ground. She had a faint pulse, and officers gave her chest compressions but she died at the hospital of a gunshot to the right side of her chest. 

A police report initially listed her as a “John Doe.”

Police said at the time that they weren’t investigating the case as a hate crime and that detectives didn’t think Lewis was targeted because she was a trans woman. It was not mentioned in court during the sentencing hearing. 

Lunsford’s attorney said there was no explanation for what happened, and that his client had no previous felony record. 

“It’s unexplainable and unacceptable,” Brian Radigan said. 

As he briefly addressed the judge through a mask, Lunsford  said he was remorseful, and called the murder an “accident” He too never said Lewis’ name.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Lunsford said. “It will never happen again. Apologies go out to the family.” Several of Lunsford’s family members sat in the back of the courtroom but did not speak on his behalf. 

The assistant county prosecutor, John Kosko, misgendered Lewis, once describing Lewis as “him” and  another time describing her as “she” –  but never saying her name. 

Kosko, who was standing in for another prosecutor, said that his office had reached out to Lewis’ mother who he said was “very ill and lives out of the county.”

No one was present at the hearing to speak for Tierramarie Lewis. 

Tamika “Devinity” Jones would have showed up to speak for Lewis had she been notified about the hearing. 

Jones is the coordinator of the Trans* Wellness program at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, a group that gathers weekly for fellowship, support and resources. 

Lewis worked closely with Jones in Trans* Wellness, and Jones said the courtroom needed to hear how Lewis was working hard to turn her life around.  

“Everyone at that sentencing needed to hear about the significant changes Tierramarie was trying to make, her struggles, and the barriers that she was facing,” Jones said. “She was working to be a  more beneficial person in society and people needed to hear her name. Her name needed to be said.”

Initially, Lewis’ murder wasn’t covered by local news outlets, aside from a single post on the online Cleveland Ohio Remembrance page. 

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office listed Lewis under the male name she was given at birth – despite the fact her name was legally changed, which was reflected on her state identification card. 

Following coverage of her murder in The Buckeye Flame, national LGBTQ+ news outlets ran stories on her death and Lewis was added to the list of names read at Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies across the world honoring the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.

51 trans Americans lost their lives to violence in 2021, marking the deadliest year on record for anti-trans homicides in the United States.

On September 21, Semaj Billingslea, 33, was shot to death in Florida, becoming the 32nd transgender person reported as a victim of fatal violence in 2022, according to the blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, which tracks anti-trans murders. 🔥

Rachel Dissell contributed greatly to this piece. 

About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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