News - March 1996

Transsexual youth sentenced to 90 days in jail by Colorado judge

COLORADO SPRINGS -- Ending months of legal maneuvering and sometimes bizarre testimony, a 21-year-old transsexual man, Sean O'Neill, was sentenced Feb. 16 in the Colorado Springs Courthouse to 90 days in jail and six years closely-supervised probation.

Facing multiple charges brought by the Colorado Springs District Attorney, which could have resulted in a total sentence of 48 years in prison, O'Neill had virtually no choice but to accept a plea bargain offered by the DA. On advice of his attorneys, he pled guilty to one count of felony sex offense.

In what may be viewed as the defining moment of a newly insurgent transsexual men's community, over 20 gender activists demonstrated outside the courthouse in response to a call-to-action issued by Tonye Barreto-Neto (TOPS, Transsexual Menace Men) and Jamison Green (FTM Int'l, Transsexual Menace Men). The issue came to national attention in the gender community following an article by Donna Minkowitz in the October issue of OUT Magazine.

The diverse group of demonstrators included members of the Lesbian Avengers, Bi-Net, Ground Zero, TOPS, and four other chapters of the Menace. Following the morning demonstration, activists packed the hearing courtroom in a show of support for Sean. Their demonstration and courtroom presence was referred to multiple times during the defenses summation, and noted by the presiding judge in his sentencing statement.

Both Green and Barreto-Neto were called by the defense to testify in Sean's behalf. They withstood vigorous cross-examination intended to use their testimony to paint Sean, and in particular his living as male, as proof of his being a dangerous sex offender. Barreto-Neto's testimony as a Sheriff's Deputy from Hillsborogh County, Florida, was particularly effective in countering the DA's attempts to portray O'Neill's gender-variance as deceptive and exploitative.

After hearing testimony from Green and Barreto-Neto about how destructive it would be for them, as transsexual men, to be forced to live as women, the presiding judge in a groundbreaking statement confirmed he would not ask O'Neill begin his sentence until he located cellspace where Sean would neither have to room with men nor serve time as a woman.

In transgender prosecutions, where being forced against one's will to serve time as one sex or the other is often an implicit, de facto part of the punishment, such accommodation is largely unprecedented.

The sentencing and accompanying demonstration were covered by local ABC, NBC and CNN affiliates, plus the Colorado Springs newspaper, the Gazette.

Public Defenders Bill Martinez and Ilene Bonnet, O'Neill's attorneys, declared the testimony of Green and Barreto-Neto along with the presence of so many gender activists, pivotal to their case. Declared an elated Martinez, later seen at a popular local bistro in a Transsexual Menace Men t-shirt: "I am just so glad the transgender community showed up. Without their participation, we just would have floundered at Sean's hearing. It's so rare to have that kind of support, especially in cases like this one. I walked around all day about six inches off the ground."

O'Neill was originally charged with sexual assault and statutory rape for sexual relationships involving four local girls, two of whom were under the statewide age-of-consent of 15 at the time. O'Neill was 18. The case was largely the product of a punitive DA and angry parents who were outraged to discover that the young man their daughters were seeing was "really" a woman. Although O'Neill lives as a male and identifies as such, he has yet to undergo any surgical or hormonal procedures.

The strange testimony was highlighted by the testimony of one girl that she had slept with Sean 51 times but had not noticed his genitals and thought his breasts were "rolls of fat." Another claimed to have had oral sex with him. One of the girlfriends, repeatedly heard saying loudly from the courtroom seats, "I'm going to kill her [Sean]," phoned O'Neill numerous times the day after the sentencing to express her unceasing love. Especially noted by the presiding judge was the claim of the parents of one girl that their daughter was completely "devastated" by Sean's "deception," yet nonetheless appeared on the Jerry Springer Show to discuss the matter with O'Neill before a national television audience. Asked by the judge how their emotionally-shattered daughter came to be on national television, the father replied: "I don't know. It certainly wasn't my idea."

O'Neill's sentence was generally regarded as a victory for the defense and defeat for the prosecution, who had sought at least a year of hard time in the Colorado State Prison. Under Colorado State law, O'Neill could have been sentenced to up to 8 years in prison for the single count of felony sex offense, rather than 90 days in the local jail. In most jurisdictions, consensual sex between 2 teenagers, where one is under the age-of-consent, customarily results in a misdemeanor and a warning.

In his cross-examinations and closing statement, the DA repeatedly referred to O'Neill, who weighs about 100 lbs and is just over 4'6" tall (somewhat smaller than some of his alleged "victims") as a dangerous and predatory pedophile, drawn to sex with "children," who would continue to "prey" on them if not imprisoned.

With time off for good behavior, O'Neill could serve as little as 30 days in jail and 2 years of probation. Under the terms of his sentence, O'Neill must report all contacts with females under the age of consent or which might lead to sexual intimacies, and undergo psychological counseling during probation. His attorneys confirmed that it will be difficult if not impossible for O'Neill ever to have his criminal record as a sex offender expunged.

General information: Jeff Walsh
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