Christopher Perras, a federal hate-crimes attorney with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, has been assigned to assist in the prosecution case against Jorge Sanders-Galvez, who has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of 16-year-old Kedarie Johnson, formerly of Burlington, Iowa.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Observers Were Surprised Jeff Sessions Chose This Case
Burlington, Iowa, high school student Kedarie Johnson, who also went by the name Kandicee, was murdered in March 2016. At the time, Burlington police said Johnson’s murder did not meet the state requirements to be prosecuted as a hate crime; local news site The Hawk Eye reported quoted police lieutenant Jeff Klein as saying “At this point, we have no information that leads us to believe Kedarie was targeted by his killer or killers because of his gender or sexual orientation.”
But Johnson’s stepfather Demetrice Hawkins disagreed, telling The Hawk Eye he believed Johnson’s murder was a hate crime. “My son was gay, but everybody knew that,” Hawkins said. “Everybody loved him.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions presumably believes there is sufficient evidence for a hate crime prosecution, so he assigned Perras to Iowa this week to assist with the prosecution. The New York Times called this “a highly unusual move,” especially in light of Sessions’ reputation for being unsympathetic to transgender-rights causes.
Under Sessions, the Justice Department said that transgender people are not covered by civil rights laws banning workplace discrimination based on sex, reversing an earlier decision stating the contrary. Yet Justice Department officials told the New York Times that Sessions personally initiated the federal hate crime investigation into Johnson’s murder.
However, Sharon McGowan of Lambda Legal released a statement calling Sessions’ move a “publicity stunt” and “the height of cynicism,” stating that “No one in the Trump administration has done more to harm LGBT people, and especially transgender people, than Jeff Sessions ― and in a government chock full of anti-LGBT appointees, that is saying a lot.”
2. Christopher Perras has an Extensive History of Prosecuting Civil Rights Violations
A search for Perras’ history on the Department of Justice website shows Perras has a respectable record of prosecuting alleged civil rights violations, including several cases brought against police officers and prison guards accused to abusing criminal inmates and suspects.
Last month, for example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Louisiana’s Middle District announced that a former correctional officer at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola had pleased guilty to beating a handcuffed and shackled inmate in November 2016; Perras helped investigate that case on behalf of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section.
In October 2016, Perras helped send a former deputy sheriff in Bullitt County, Kentucky to federal prison for 27 months, after the sheriff abused his authority to falsely arrest and imprison a man who allegedly insulted him. A month later, Perras prosecuted another sheriff’s deputy in Madison County, Alabama for lying under oath to obstruct an investigation into his own alleged beating of an innocent motorist.
3. Perras, a New Hampshire Native, Graduated From University of Michigan Law in 2011
Perras, a 34-year-old New Hampshire native, now lives in Maryland. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011, according to the school’s website. After graduating, he received the Fiske Award, which supports graduates who choose a career in public service. While at Michigan, he was the executive editor of the Michigan Law Review, and received a scholarly writing award for his paper “Striking an Appropriate Balance Between Real and Charge Offense Sentencing in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.”
Outside of the frequent Justice Department press releases mentioning Perras’ contributions to various prosecutions, and newspaper articles about those same cases, there’s not much information available about Christopher Perras as he has maintained a low profile; no accounts for him could be found on LinkedIn, Facebook or other forms of social media, and as of press time there have been no photos released of him either.
Perras has been with the Department of Justice since at least 2015; that year he helped prosecute a case against a sheriff’s captain in DeKalb County, Georgia, who was accused of obstruction of justice and encouraging excessive use of force at the county jail.
In addition to his prosecutions against law enforcement officials accused of civil rights violations, Perras has also prosecuted hate-crime cases against private citizens, including one against an Iowa man sentenced to 10 years in prison for a racially motivated attack against an African-American man.
4. Police Have not yet Announced a Motive for Kedarie Johnson’s Murder
Kedarie Johnson’s mother Katrina told the Des Moines Register that she thinks her son was killed due to his sexuality. “I truly believe [his murder] was a hate crime, I do, because if it wasn’t he’d still be here …. My son was only a child, and because of his sexuality, his life is gone.”
Family and friends told the Register that Johnson identified as gender-fluid, usually presenting as a male although sometimes he liked to wear long hair extensions and other feminine-identified accessories. He had girlfriends, but “preferred boys.” Johnson’s pastor Nathan Williams told the Register that his 16-year-old parishioner did not feel confined to either sex and was in the process of “figuring himself out.”
The two suspects in Johnson’s murder, Jaron Purham and Jorge Sanders-Galvez, are former residents of Jennings, Missouri, according to the Associated Press. The two men were served arrest warrants for Johnson’s murder last January. At the time, Lieutenant Greg Allen with the Burlington Police said investigators thought Purham and Sanders-Galvez knew Johnson, but refused to speculate on the alleged killers’ motives.
Purham and Sanders-Galvez were both in custody on unrelated charges when their warrants for Johnson’s murder were served.
5. Perras is Only Assisting in the Prosecution of 1 of the 2 Murder Suspects
Though Jaron Purham and Jorge Sanders-Galvez have both been charged with Johnson’s murder, they are going to be tried separately. The Hawk Eye reports Sanders-Galvez’s trial is scheduled to start on Oct. 24, with Perras expected to assist in his prosecution. If convicted of using a firearm to commit murder involving a hate crime, Sanders-Galvez faces a possible death penalty.
Jaron Purham, meanwhile, is currently in jail in St. Louis, Missouri, awaiting trial on unrelated charges. He is expected to be sent to Iowa for his murder trial after the resolution of his murder case.
Before his trial, Sanders-Galvez remains in the Des Moines County jail in lieu of $2 million bond.