CeCe McDonald, a black transgender woman, was walking with a group of friends past Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis on June 5, 2011. Words were exchanged, including racist and transphobic slurs, between the group and Dean Schmitz, a white cisgender man, and other white bar patrons who were outside smoking, according to court documents filed at the time.
Schmitz and his friends called CeCe and her friends “faggots,” “niggers,” and “chicks with dicks,” and suggested that CeCe was “dressed as a woman” in order to “rape” Schmitz, according to SupportCeCe.com. A fight ensued, and one of the attackers threw a glass and cut McDonald’s face. Schmitz was fatally stabbed, dying at the scene. McDonald was charged with murder.
McDonald plead guilty May 2 to a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter with a recommended 41 month prison sentence in connection with the incident. She will be sentenced June 4. The judge will apply time served and “good time” to her sentence, so McDonald will likely serve an additional 20 months in prison, not an additional 41 months.
McDonald was the only person arrested in connection with the incident until May 11, 2012, when the Washington County prosecutor charged Molly Shannon Flaherty with second-degree assault with a deadly weapon and third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm for allegedly smashing a glass in McDonald’s face during the melee. Both charges are felonies, carring a maximum sentence of seven years and five years in prison, respectively.
Flaherty was booked into the Hennepin County jail May 15, and she was released the next day on $15,000 bail.
Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney prosecuting McDonald, wrote the following e-mail to blogger and activist Brandon Lacy Campos regarding McDonald’s case and the decision to prosecute Flaherty. Freeman writes that McDonald did not cooperate with the prosecution for fear of incriminating herself, so prosecutors could not charge Flaherty until McDonald’s trial was over. He also explains that he agreed to McDonald’s plea because “we thought it served justice for the family of the stabbing victim, but also was appropriate for Ms. McDonald.” Read the full letter below:
Last month, I wrote to many of you because you had contacted our office about our handling of the Chrishaun McDonald case. I want to update you now on significant actions around that case.
Recently, the Washington County Attorney’s Office charged Molly Shannon Flaherty with one count of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon and one count of third-degree assault-substantial bodily harm for attacking Ms. McDonald on June 5, 2011, outside the Schooner bar.
As I mentioned several times during the months leading up to Ms. McDonald’s trial, we immediately sent the case to Washington County because it would have been a conflict of interest if we had charged the case against Ms. Flaherty at the same time we had charged the homicide case against Ms. McDonald. Washington County Attorney Peter Orput stated after the charges were filed May 11, that he would have filed the charges last summer, but he needed to talk to Ms. McDonald and get her medical records. Ms. McDonald’s lawyers were afraid that information could be used against her in the murder case and advised her not to cooperate with Mr. Orput, a position both we and Mr. Orput understand and respect. It is my understanding that Ms. McDonald’s attorneys no longer have this concern, and Ms. McDonald is helping put together a strong case against Ms. Flaherty.
As you probably know, we entered into a plea agreement with Ms. McDonald that dropped the charge from second-degree murder to second-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of an unarmed victim. Instead of facing a possible sentence of 27 years in prison if convicted, Ms. McDonald will be sentenced to 41 months, and with time served and good behavior, she should be released in just over two years. We agreed to this negotiated resolution because we thought it served justice for the family of the stabbing victim, but also was appropriate for Ms. McDonald.
I want to reiterate, 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. That is how we handled Ms. McDonald’s case from beginning to end. That is how we try to serve in every case we review. We cannot, and do not, let popular opinion determine how we handle cases.
However, it is important that we fully serve all members of our community and, therefore, we do listen to the comments and concerns about the justice system. We understand that some in the LGBTQ community may continue to disagree with the way we handled the McDonald case and that is their right. However, I renew my pledge to continue to work with all our residents to make this office receptive to your concerns. We know Hennepin County has a large LGBTQ community and it is our duty to make sure your voice is heard so that safety and justice is achieved for all.
Hennepin County Attorney
Activists have continued to rally in support of McDonald, hosting noise demonstrations outside Hennepin County Jail. According to visitor reports on PrettyQueer.com, McDonald can hear demonstrators from inside the jail, and appreicates their support.
McDonald is allowed four people on her social visitation list. Social visitors are allowed non-contact visits three times per week, speaking via telephone for 20 minutes and separated by bullet-proof glass.
“When I first started going in to see her, [jail staff] treated me like crap, verbally harassing me and verbally harassing CeCe,” said Katie Burgess, executive director of the Transgender Youth Support Network, to PrettyQueer.com. “As time has continued, we have seen that really change because they know who we are and we’ve been coming for 10 months now. Some of the security officers actually stand up for us to other deputies. We’re really changing the culture there.”
Burgess also reports to PrettyQueer.com that their support efforts have directly contributed to prison staff using correct pronouns with McDonald: “There are at least one or two deputies there who consistently would not use her preferred pronouns, and there were a few of us who have gotten into a variety of arguments with them over the course of her time there, and we’re actually seeing them change and use appropriate pronouns.”
Incarcerated transgender people are often housed in facilities reflecting their legal sex, as is the case with McDonald. They are also often placed in solitary confinement where they are usually in a cell 23 hours per day and have little to no outside contact, as McDonald was placed when she was first arrested. She is currently housed in the psychiatric ward, a smaller section of the jail, where she requested to be housed. She has access to television, board games and books, as well as other inmates.
McDonald’s living accommodations will likely change after sentencing. Felony inmates are usually housed in state prisons, not local jails, as they prepare to live long-term in incarceration. Visitation, privileges and accommodations vary by facility and the level of security at the prison. There are four men’s prisons in Minnesota, and she could be placed in any of them, up to four hours away from friends and family.
While many of McDonald’s supporters contend this is a case of self defense, a person must not use more force than what a jury or judge considers necessary to defend themselves. Because McDonald used scissors to defend herself against Schmitz, who was using his fists and would be considered an unarmed person, prosecutors would likely argue McDonald escalated a fist fight into a fatal altercation.
Prosecutor Freeman continually claims he is trying to best serve the citizens of Hennepin County by prosecuting McDonald, but I think race and gender are most definitely a factor in his decision to prosecute her, even if not actively. If Schmitz had attacked a cisgender white woman, her self-defense claims would likely go unchallenged, or at the very least, would have been taken more seriously. People of color, transgender people and queer people are incarcerated at astronomical rates, especially when those identities intersect, as in the case of McDonald.
McDonald is not the only queer person of color who has been locked up for defending themselves. In the case of the New Jersey 4, a man sexually propositioned a black lesbian woman among a group of seven black lesbians. After refusing to take no for an answer, he assaulted them and a fight broke out. Four of the women were charged with felony gang assault in the second degree, with one of them additionally charged with first degree assault, receiving sentences ranging from 3.5 to 11 years in prison. New York media outlets had a field day tearing these women apart when they were on trial, calling them things like “killer lesbians,” “a wolf pack of lesbians,” and a “seething sapphic septet,” portraying people of color as animals.
While McDonald’s case has received a substantial amount of attention (and not enough, frankly), there are more cases that most people probably don’t know about. There has been no public outcry by HRC. (Seriously, how can an organization bill itself as the Human Rights Campaign and not address McDonald’s case at all?) The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force signed on to a list of 35 organizations supporting McDonald, but I can only find their support listed on other websites with nothing directly from the Task Force. Yet I keep getting emails from these organizations regarding marriage equality and other stuff I don’t think is nearly as important.
Really, the only organizations from which I’ve noticed unbridled support for McDonald are TYSN and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
And it’s because McDonald’s case and so many others involve gender-variant people of color who have been criminalized and the white gay establishment can’t be bothered to care or is too afraid to touch them. These cases may somehow tarnish the whitewashed, assimiliationist gay crusade for equality, especially marriage equality, and they just can’t have that.
One way you can support McDonald during her imprisonment is by writing her letters of support. Please send letters to:
Public Safety Facility
Chrishaun Reed McDonald #2012000296
401 South 4th Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55415
NOTE: This address is valid until McDonald’s sentencing June 4. Please visit the Support CeCe website for updates on her address.
Inmates are not allowed to receive packages, including photographs. All letters sent to the jail are opened, read and inspected by jail staff.
McDonald can also receive books, newspaper and magazine subscriptions. All books need to be new paperback copies sent directly from a publisher or an online bookstore. Please keep her interests in mind when sending her reading materials, which include drawing, music, fashion, dance and pop culture. Please email email@example.com if you send her a book or magazine to avoid sending duplicates.