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Historic case arguing for a sheriff’s culpability for his acts in the murder of a transgender man


Transgender man Brandon Teena was brutally raped and later killed in 1993 by two men who discovered his gender identity. The sheriff investigating the rape abusively questioned Brandon Teena, even though he was the victim. Teena reluctantly agreed to serve as a witness. Despite the duty to protect a witness who agrees to help law enforcement officials and strong evidence that Teena’s life was in danger, the sheriff not only notified the rapists that Teena had pressed charges against them but also took no steps to protect him, leading to his death. After the murder, Brandon Teena’s mother, JoAnn Brandon, sued. After a bad trial court ruling, Lambda Legal stepped in to help with the appeal. The Nebraska Supreme Court adopted Lambda Legal’s argument that the sheriff could not escape payment for his own negligence by shifting liability to the murderers, and that the sheriff’s abuse of Teena during the rape investigation was “extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” As a result, the damages awarded ultimately increased by $81,000.


Brandon Teena’s life and death was the subject of the Oscar-winning movie called “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Lambda Legal’s Impact

This case was one of the most important in LGBT history for helping to bring visibility to the transgender community, shedding light on the profound challenges transgender people encounter and moving the fight of transgender rights significantly forward. It also strengthened the principle that law enforcement officials must be held accountable for fair treatment of people who are the targets of hate crimes.

    • April 2000 Lambda Legal files its opening brief in the Nebraska Supreme Court appealing the trial court’s ruling that the sheriff could shift the liability for his failure to protect a witness to the murderers, and otherwise escape liability for his abusive interrogation of a rape victim.
    • January 2001 Lambda Legal appears before the supreme court for oral argument.
    • April 2001 The Nebraska Supreme Court unanimously holds that the Richardson County Sheriff is liable both for his failure to protect Brandon Teena and separately for his abusive treatment of him.