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09 April 2020

Michelle-Lael Norsworthy (1964 - ) convicted of murder

​After high school, as Jeffrey, Norsworthy became a police informer, joined the army national guard, ran around town inebriated, and carried a loaded gun.
“I was an extremely aggressive, non-thinking person. I did anything I could to suppress my femininity”. 
One night in 1984 Norsworthy, then 20, encountered a man in a bar in Fullerton (close to Los Angeles) whom he had helped bust in a drug deal years before.  They argued, first in the bar, then in the parking lot, and Norsworthy got a gun from his car.  It went off three times, nicking the man’s femoral and carotid arteries.  Norsworthy began dressing his wounds as help was summoned. The man died six weeks later.

Norsworthy was sentenced in 1987 to 17 years to life in prison for second degree murder. Norsworthy takes full responsibility for the murder –
“the crime I committed I’m responsible for. I’m not trying to mitigate that in any way”. 
Most of Norsworthy’s 28 years incarceration was spent in Mule Creek state prison in Ione, California. Most of the first years were violent: fights, self-mutilation, etc. It was not until 1994 that Norsworthy was able to put a name to various feelings. A prison psychiatrist, or maybe the priest, used the term ‘transsexual’. Norsworthy looked it up in a dictionary and it clicked.

She came out and started expressing as female – she now declared her name to be Michelle-Lael. However it took many years of agitation before she was transferred to Vacaville, the only California prison with a Gender Clinic.  She was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 1999, and it was another year after that before she was allowed female hormones. She requested a bra, was denied, appealed and was so allowed.

In 2009, again in Mule Creek, she was gang-raped with the prison guards doing nothing. This left her with broken teeth and Hepatitis C – for the latter she was not allowed any treatment.

Finally in 2012 her psychologist recommended gender-affirmation surgery – however he was quickly transferred to another prison. In 2013 Norsworthy was again denied parole as “a danger to society”.

In 2014 she filed a lawsuit, arguing that denying her surgery was cruel and unusual punishment. In addition one doctor added that, without surgery, her already damaged liver would suffer from the high dose of hormones – after surgery they could be reduced.   In April 2015 U.S. District Court Judge Jon Tigar agreed, ordering California to provide her transition surgery. This was a groundbreaking decision. Norsworthy was the first person incarcerated in California to get such a ruling.
Michelle-Lael in prison, 2015

All of a sudden she was returned quickly – two years early - to the parole board because of  "a change in circumstances or new information” and parole was granted – officially this was recognition of Norsworthy’s model behaviour: she hadn’t been written up for a disciplinary infraction for years. The same day the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation filed a motion to toss out Judge Tigar’s opinion, arguing that since she’d been paroled, the ruling was moot. The Transgender Law Center, who were representing her, went back to court, arguing the state was trying to make the precedent (not to mention the cost of surgery) go away by releasing her.

In August 2015 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed with Shiloh Quine, 56, also suing for transgender surgery, that it would pay, but only if all parties agreed that no precedent was being set.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did rule that the timing of Norsworthy’s release implied “there was at least some chance that the defendants influenced the parole process.” Norsworthy’s case was allowed to set legal precedent for other inmates.

After release Michelle-Lael, aged 52 after 28 years in prison, initially lived in a halfway house in San Francisco for female drug addicts. Although she had been sober for more than 20 years, it was the only place that would take her. She was then able to receive treatment for Hepatitis C. She is sort of cured but has permanent damage to her liver.

She had affirmative surgery in 2017 provided by Medi-Cal. She has been attempting to setup a charity to help trans persons and other women in San Francisco.

The California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation announced a new policy in 2015 re trans prisoners, and a few were even granted surgery, but most were not.  A 30-page guidance document was released in March 2020 that aligns more closely to WPATH criteria, and permits primary care doctors to prescribe hormones.

  • Ed Pilkington. “'Prison within prison': a transgender inmate's years-long battle for treatment”. The Guardian, 26 July 2015. Online.
  • “Transgender convicted murderer, 51, seeking sex-reassignment surgery whilst in jail will now be RELEASED from prison after serving 28 years of her sentence”. The Daily Mail, 7 August 2015. Online.
  • Bob Egalko. “Transgender pioneer out of prison, on a new path”. San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 2016. Online.
  • Annie Brown. “Michelle’s Case”. The California Sunday Magazine, May 17, 2016. Online.
  • Jacob Anderson-Minshall. “This Trans Ex-Con Helped Make History” Advocate, March 07 2017. Online.
  • Chris Johnson.  “Calif. prison system updates policy on trans inmates as scrutiny grows”.  Washington Blade, March 11, 2020. Online.

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