CeCe McDonald broke down in tears as her lawyer grilled her on the witness stand. “Is it true that Molly Flaherty and Dean Schmitz started making racist remarks and slurs including 'niggers' and 'faggots,' and did Dean Schmitz say, 'Look at that boy dressed as a girl and tucking her dick in?'”
McDonald replied, “Yes.”
McDonald was in the process of pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of Schmitz. It's a case that has enraged transgender advocates, who say McDonald was defending herself from a racist and transphobic attack.
McDonald is a person of color-- she's black – and she's also transgender, two facts that her attorneys argued motivated Dean Alvin Schmitz and his friends to initiate a confrontation with her, resulting in an altercation that would leave Schmitz dead and McDonald in custody charged with murder.
McDonald's attorney, Hersch Izek, asked her, “Is it a fact that Molly Flaherty yelled out, 'I can take on all of you bitches' and smashed a glass of alcohol in your face and a fight broke out with Ms. Flaherty?”
McDonald replied, “Yes.”
Izek continued, “Is it a fact that eventually the fight broke up and you attempted to leave the scene, attempted to get out of harm’s way, and got as far as the intersection, and Schmitz followed you? And you reached into your purse and pulled out a pair of scissors and held them in a way that posed an unreasonable risk to Schmitz?”
Yes, said McDonald.
“And are you giving up your claim that you legally attacked him in self-defense?”
“Yes, I am.”
For ten months, McDonald and her supporters have insisted she is innocent and acted in self-defense. But on Wednesday, she took a plea for a sentence of 41 months in prison. The prosecution had been seeking a conviction on charges of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years.
McDonald's sentencing hearing will be on June 4, one year from the incident that landed her in police custody.
Around midnight on June 5, 2011, McDonald and three of her friends were walking to the grocery store to get food. They left McDonald’s apartment, located a couple of blocks from the grocery store, and on the way walked past a rowdy bar known as the Schooner Tavern.
Schmitz, along with three others, was standing outside the bar holding two bottles of beer when McDonald and her friends walked down the sidewalk next to the bar.
As they passed the bar, Schmitz hurled epithets at McDonald and her friends, one of McDonald’s friends told police. According to that police report, McDonald’s friend, Larry Thomas, said that Schmitz yelled out to the group “nigger and faggot lover and said she is not a girl, she is tucking her dick.”
According the police report:
LARRY THOMAS also said that DEAN SCHMITZ had two beer bottles, one in each hand. At that point LARRY THOMAS said that he took off his belt and began swinging it around. LARRY THOMAS then said that he backed up to the middle of the street and dropped his belt like he was read to fight. LARRY THOMAS then recalled DEAN SCHMITZ say that he was done. At that point LARRY THOMAS said that MOLLY FLAHERTY began to fight with [McDonald] and all hell broke loose.
According to the criminal complaint filed by police, a woman (alleged elsewhere to be Flaherty) allegedly ”threw or pushed a glass” into McDonald’s face. The confrontation then devolved into a melee.
Witness accounts vary as to exactly what happened next. An employee of the Schooner told police that he “observed McDonald with the knife.”
According to a police report, Schmitz’s fiancée, Jenny Thoreson, stated that “she was outside and a altercation began with a group of ‘gay’ people walking by the bar it escalated to a physical level when a party later identified as McDonald took a knife out and ‘stabbed’ her fiancé after yelling she had a ‘blade.’”
A witness not affiliated with either side told police that he or she saw Schmitz pull McDonald off of the woman who had attacked McDonald. Then Schmitz grabbed his chest and said, “You stabbed me.” The witness said he or she heard McDonald say, “Yes, I did.”
According to police, another witness saw McDonald go to the parking lot across the street and throw a pair of scissors -- not a knife -- on the ground.
No weapon has been recovered from the scene, and prosecutors said in court Monday that there was no murder weapon in evidence.
According to a police report, McDonald told Officer David Garman that she “was walking along when a group of people began to make derogatory comments about her. A physical altercation ensued and McDonald stated that she was forced to protect herself.“
McDonald’s plea came after four days of evidentiary hearings and jury selection, and as the case wore on, it became increasingly clear that much of the evidence that the defense hoped to use in the case would never be shown to the jury.
McDonald's defense tried, unsuccessfully, to get images of a swastika tattoo on Schmitz chest entered into evidence.
The prosecutors argued the tattoo was irrelevant to the case.
McDonald's attorney disagreed: “His tattoo is a form of communication that intends to make a statement about his intent toward people of color.”
“The fact that Dean Schmitz had a swastika tattoo on his chest reflects his attitude -- otherwise he would not have had it,” McDonald's attorney told Judge Daniel Moreno on Friday. “It reflects what happened that night – he singled out Ms. McDonald because of her race and her gender. This is about how that swastika tattoo reflects his conduct that night.”
The judge ruled that no images of that swastika tattoo would be allowed in the courtroom.
McDonald's defense also moved to have a toxicology expert testify as to the effects that methamphetamines, alcohol, and cocaine have on violent behavior. Those drugs showed up in Schmitz’s system when he was examined, according to toxicology reports.
The judge said the expert could only speak generally about those drugs and could not speculate that Schmitz was actually experiencing any specific effects.
Her lawyers also sought to have Schmitz’s lengthy criminal record – including convictions for assault and sale of cocaine -- shown to the jury. But the judge ruled that his criminal history was sufficiently different from his actions on June 5 and therefore could not be shown to the jury.
McDonald's lawyers tried to introduce a witness to speak about violence against the transgender community and to educate the jury about transgender issues.
Research has shown that transgender woman of color face very high rates of violence, and that has been borne out by new reports over the last few weeks. At least three transgender women of color were murdered just last month -- one in Chicago, one in Oakland, and one in Detroit.
Judge Moreno told the defense that an expert witness may testify but that person could only provided the definition of 'transgender' and could not talk about the violence transgender individuals face.
Chrishaun CeCe McDonald
Chrishaun McDonald was born in Chicago in 1989 and came out as transgender in her early teen years. Her friends call her CeCe, or often affectionately by her nickname, Honee Bea. She was studying fashion design at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Since her arrest, she’s been writing to her supporters about her life as well as her experience since that night in front of Schooner.
“I thank the lord everyday for keeping me here and giving me such a profound mouth and mind to share my experiences and the trials and tribulations I’ve overcame, because honestly, I never thought I would make it past my 16th birthday,” McDonald wrote last November. “To grow up and have that thought at a young age is unsettling.”
She has recounted experiences with racism and discrimination because of her gender identity.
“I grew up in a community that was predominately African-American people,” she wrote. “And with the fact of me just being a minority in this society was bad, being African American and trans is an ultimate challenge. I can remember having loaded guns being put to my head and being beat until bloody. Or walking down the street and being yelled ‘a faggot.’”
She said she’d escaped that situation and moved to Minneapolis, a city known for a large and visible transgender community. With her criminal case pending, McDonald wrote that her situation had again become precarious.
“With the recent incidents that involved me, involuntarily, I feel that once again a single situation has blocked me from further reaching my pursuit of happiness,” she wrote. “I am truly sorry for the loss of a person who also was involved in the incident, but how would my mom and family feel if she heard that I was killed by a group of racist, homophobic/transphobic people only for walking to the store and being at the wrong place at the wrong time, which luckily I wasn’t by myself. Or even looking at it in different aspects, would the situation have been the same. Would they have taken the same lengths to prosecute him if he had killed me? Or would they have even cared if it were a black on black crime. But once again not to many people care if it doesn’t involve them or is of their concern.”
McDonald's blog posts and Facebook page postings would complicate her case. The prosecution moved to have the preceding letter as well as statements she made on Facebook about the incident in front of the Schooner introduced as evidence against her.
On the night of the stabbing, McDonald had told police that she had held out scissors in order to scare Schmitz and that Schmitz had then run into them.
But in a letter to the Star Tribune, she reportedly wrote that her confession was "a big mistake [for] trying to cover up for one of my friends who actually did it. I didn't know exactly who, but I knew someone was defending me."
During jury selection, the prosecution asked each potential juror if they could believe someone who told them two different stories about the same event. All the prospective jurors said it would make them trust someone less.
Dean Alvin Schmitz
Schmitz was the father of four boys, all teenage or younger. His family spoke to local Fox affiliate, KMSP-9, shortly after his death and praised him as someone always willing to lend a hand.
“He always used to go out of his way to help people,” his son, Jeremy Williams, told the station’s reporter. “He would give the shirt off his back to help people. He was, overall, a great person.”
“He was a great guy. He definitely didn’t deserve what happened to him,” said Josh Williams, another of Schmitz’s children. “I loved him very much. He’ll always be with me. He was my best friend.”
While he is remembered as a man who loved his family and was eager to help those in need, Schmitz’s brother, Charles Pelfrey, told the Star Tribune he wasn’t surprised to hear that his brother had been accused of making derogatory remarks.
"At times he can be like that, yes," Pelfrey said. "It depends on his mood, unfortunately."
Graffiti tags popped up in parts of Minneapolis that say “Free CeCe,” and the CeCe McDonald Support Committee raised funds for her defense and hosted events to raise awareness about the case. Supporters have showed up at hearings in the case wearing buttons depicting a swastika with a line through it and t-shirts that say “Free Honee Bea.”
Prosecutors filed a motion to prevent those t-shirts and buttons from being allowed in the courtroom during the trial, a motion the judge approved last week.
Last month, 14 national LGBT groups, including the national chapter of PFLAG, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) sent a letter to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman urging him to drop the murder charges against McDonald.
“NCAVP members know that transgender survivors of violence often face biased and discriminatory treatment from law enforcement, courts, and other first responders,” the letter stated. “We are concerned that McDonald could be facing discriminatory charges based on her transgender identity. While we do not have all the details about this incident, our experience tells us to strongly advocate that Hennepin County consider CeCe McDonald as acting in self-defense.”
Chuck Laszewski, media coordinator for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, sent a statement to TAI last month responding to those criticisms.
“Over the past several months, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has received a number of comments from some members of the LGBTQ community criticizing our handling of a case,” wrote Laszewski. “Our role as prosecutors is to examine the facts provided by police investigators and determine if there is sufficient admissible evidence to bring a charge. It is our mission to serve justice and public safety. Gender, race, sexual orientation and class are not part of the decision-making process.”
He continued, “After looking at the facts, we feel that Chrishaun McDonald must be prosecuted for murder. We cannot, and do not, let popular opinion determine how we handle cases.”
Laszewski noted that the county attorney’s office has successfully prosecuted hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that it had done trainings on LGBT issues and hired LGBT staff.
“We understand that some in the LGBTQ community may continue to disagree with us, as is their right, regarding the McDonald case,” Laszewski said. “When that case is behind us, sadly, there will be other transgender individuals who will likely be victims of crimes. We want to continue to work with the community to prosecute those crimes, to make everyone safer and to bring justice to all.”
Katie Burgess, executive director of the Transgender Youth Support Network, told reporters after McDonald pleaded guilty, “We know that this system is not designed to deliver justice to young trans women of color. We are going to continue to support CeCe as she goes through this process and continue to stand for justice for all trans people and people of color so that this is the last time a young trans woman of color has to go through this.”
Local transgender advocate, Andrea Jenkins, also addressed reporters. “So many of our trans brothers and sisters have been murdered just in the last two weeks in Oakland, in Chicago, all in their early 20s just like CeCe McDonald,” said Jenkins. “Please do not be disappointed with CeCe McDonald. The pressure of this oppressive system is more powerful than I could have withstood. We need to continue to struggle for a more just world for all our brothers and sisters, in particular our trans people of color.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told the Twin Cities Daily Planet that he was satisfied with the plea deal. “My feeling is that this is an appropriate resolution to a tragic situation,” Freeman said. “One person is dead and another person going to prison for 41 months.”
Front-page image: Flickr/steakpinball
Story images via SupportCece.wordpress.com