More than two years after fatally shooting a man in the face during a home-invasion robbery of a trans woman in West Philadelphia, Matthew J. White was convicted of second-degree murder, attempted murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
White was called “a predator” by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott, who handed down the sentence on Feb. 7.
“Members of the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs were present during the Matthew White trial to stand in solidarity with trans-women victims who directly experienced the mental and emotional impact of this devastating crime,” said Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. “While we are pleased that in this instance justice was served for the victims of these heinous crimes, let’s not forget that rates of violence toward transgender people, particularly trans women of color, are on the rise.
“Our office will continue to advocate for justice for the victims who were deeply affected by this crime, and for the many transgender women of color who are often targets of discrimination, harassment and violence,” Hikes said.
Prosecutors said White, 34, had a history of targeting and robbing trans-women sex workers and escorts prior to the incident on Jan. 9, 2017, when he broke into Vivian Royster’s home on the 5400 block of Girard Avenue in Kingsessing, attempted to rob her and murdered her boyfriend, Barry Jones.
White had perpetrated a home invasion the previous night on the 1300 block of North 52nd Street, according to court testimony. The victims of that invasion, Miayanna Brooks, Aly Damian and Saleem Singleton — three trans-women escorts who, like Royster, advertised on the website Backpage — testified against White.
Prosecutors have argued throughout court proceedings that White specifically preyed on trans-women escorts he targeted through ads on Backpage.
According to the witnesses of the incident the night before the murder, White had entered the home, held a gun to Singleton’s head and robbed the women of money and cellphones. He had previously been a client of Damian’s.
At trial, White’s attorney maintained her client was not the man who shot and killed Jones as he tried to defend Royster. But according to testimony, White had gotten into a fight with Jones, 34, and shot him. He then fired shots at both Royster and her aunt, who also lived at the home.
The prosecution argued that White had made an appointment for services with Royster with the express plan to rob her, bringing a gun with him. In March 2017, PGN reported Royster’s testimony at the preliminary hearing:
Royster said White pulled out a black-and-silver gun in her bedroom and asked her, “You know what this is?”
Royster said that Jones, who sensed a disturbance, entered the bedroom and tried to fight White. “[White] shot [Jones] twice in the face.”
During the weeklong trial, prosecutors showed the jury surveillance footage from across the street from Royster’s home, according to news reports. The video showed a man running and firing a gun.
The trans women who had previously testified to their own attack also testified at the trial. Among the other witnesses who testified were police officers who had responded to both incidents and a specially trained detective who gave expert testimony about cell phone records and data.
In the closing arguments on Feb. 4, White’s attorney, Ellen Hurley, claimed the trans victims had collaborated to frame White as the killer. “The entire investigation was bad from the beginning,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Courtney Malloy said White was a calculated predator who targeted trans-women escorts, believing they wouldn’t go to police because they are transgender and because they are escorts.
White was wrong, according to Malloy, the women bravely sought justice.
“The first opportunity these women had to find the person who committed this horribly violent crime they did: They told the detectives, they worked with the detectives, and as the judge said, they were heard. The system heard them. This jury heard them,” Malloy told news outlets.
White was charged with more than a dozen offenses, including murder, attempted murder, robbery and weapons offenses. The jury deliberated for three days before reaching the guilty verdict.
McDermott sentenced White to life in prison without parole, with decades more time added for the various other charges. White reportedly cursed McDermott during the sentencing, to which she replied, “Thank you, Mr. White.”
At the March 2017 preliminary hearing, Brooks, one of the victims of the invasion the night before the murder, told PGN: “This is important especially for all of those who don’t come forward and who are in these types of situations. It’s important that this man goes away so that others will feel OK to come forward and say what they have to say.”
Hurley intends to appeal White’s sentence, claiming he did not fit the description the women gave of the assailant.