CeCe McDonald Sentenced to 41 Months in Jail for Surviving Transphobic and Racist Attack

Almost exactly a year ago, CeCe McDonald was walking with four friends past Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis. A group of people (who are white) standing outside the tavern noticed McDonald and her friends (who are black) walking by, and announced this with a series of racist and transphobic slurs, ranging from the n-word to “look at that boy dressed like a girl.” McDonald and her friends tried to walk away, but one of the taverngoers, Molly Flaherty, hit McDonald in the face with a bottle, giving her deep lacerations. A fight ensued, and when McDonald tried to leave the scene, Flaherty’s boyfriend, Dean Schmitz, pursued her. He had been one of the voices shouting slurs; when she saw that he was following her, McDonald pulled a pair of scissors from her purse and turned to face him. Schmitz ended up dying of a chest wound that night, and McDonald’s life has been a nightmare ever since.

McDonald was arrested, and according to TransGriot, was “denied medical treatment for her injuries, was interrogated for hours, placed in solitary confinement on top of that and forced to sign a confession that she later recanted.” Molly Flaherty wasn’t arrested until May 11. Flaherty is charged with “second degree assault with a deadly weapon and third degree assault causing substantial bodily harm;” McDonald was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

When she refused to accept a plea deal on that charge, because she maintains that her actions were taken in self-defense, she was charged with second-degree intentional murder. Yesterday, June 4th, McDonald agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder, and accept the minimum sentence of 41 months in prison. Right now, McDonald is incarcerated in a men’s prison. Although CeCe is a transgender woman, the State Department of Corrections has said that “because he is being housed as a male with Hennepin County… We will intake him as a male at St. Cloud prison.” The state has also said that “the state will initiate an effort to make its own determination of McDonald’s gender” and choose a later prison assignment based on that, but their egregious misgendering of her in their formal statement doesn’t necessarily bode well for that process.

The instances for outrage are nearly innumerable — the fact that the violence visited upon CeCe and her friends has never been treated as a hate crime, the fact that CeCe’s actions have never been read as self-defense by the legal system, the fact that the state’s response to a transphobic attack is to further misgender and endanger one of its victims, and the fact that information about the dangers of daily life for trans* people and Schmitz’s own criminal history and swastika tattoo weren’t deemed admissible in court are all reason for anger. Taken together they form a mosaic of how deplorable the situation is for trans women of color, and how McDonald’s intersecting marginalized identities have meant that the system meant to protect her worked against her at every turn.

When CeCe McDonald and her friends were attacked, it formed part of a narrative that’s familiar to many different demographics: people of color being attacked by white people, gender-based violence, and transphobic violence. CeCe McDonald is a woman of color who defended herself against a white man, and she’s also a transgender person who defended herself against transphobic harassment and violence. None of these groups have been able to rely upon the US justice system to defend their rights or physical safety with any sort of consistency, and they are also groups that experience violence with terrifying frequency.

Thanks to the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, gender identity is now included in the federal definition of a hate crime — to be clear, crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender identity (as well as race) are supposed to be legally defined as hate crimes. Minnesota’s self-defense laws, as of February 2012, allow use of deadly force by gun owners in virtually any situation in which they perceive themselves to be in danger, extending gun owners’ rights to take the life of another if they feel their own is threatened literally anywhere, whereas the danger previously had to be inside their own home. One lawmaker, quoted in the Star Tribune, said that “This is about the presumption that the law-abiding citizen has acted in self-defense.”

leslie feinberg visiting mcdonald in jail/photo credit leslie feinberg

Of course, Minnesota’s current definition of self-defense wasn’t yet in effect in June 2011. The law regarding self-defense overall in the US states that a person may use “reasonable force” in their own defense or the defense of others. “Reasonable force” is not necessarily deadly — deadly force is only permissible if the person in question has”reasonable fear of serious injury or death.” Some states also have a “duty to retreat” clause, which specifies that the person in question must try to flee the situation and can only use deadly force if they’re unable to. CeCe McDonald did try to leave the scene; one of her attackers chased her, which is when she used force against him.

The force CeCe McDonald used turned out to be deadly; she agreed to a plea bargain on second-degree murder because it was clear that her claim of self-defense would not be taken seriously. Expert testimony about the life-threatening danger that trans women face constantly wasn’t considered admissible evidence in McDonald’s trial; if it was, it would have been abundantly clear that McDonald had excellent reason to “fear serious injury or death.”

In terms of statistics, “of the 22 people who were murdered in 2009 because of their sexual orientation, about 80 percent were people of color and half were transgender women; the other half were overwhelmingly men who defied gender stereotypes.” In the numbers for 2010, 70% of anti-LGBT murder victims were people of color; 44% were trans women. Being a transgender woman of color is one of the most dangerous things you can be in America. The months previous to the attack on McDonald, Brandy Martell and Paige Clay, both transgender women of color, were murdered in possible hate crimes. When Schmitz pursued McDonald as she tried to escape the slur-shouting strangers who had attacked her and her friends, she already had serious facial lacerations, and as McDonald’s friend Rai’vyn Cross explained to Democracy Now, was used to experiencing threats and violence “on a day-to-day basis.” How could McDonald not have feared serious injury or death, and with excellent reason? How can she not expect serious injury and physical danger in St. Cloud prison, incarcerated with a population of men? How can she possibly respond to that, if all her possible responses to violence are going to be read as somehow worse than the violence they are meant to defend her against?

It’s difficult not to compare McDonald’s case to that of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; Zimmerman also claimed self-defense after shooting and killing Martin, who was only 17. Martin was black, and Zimmerman is not; Zimmerman wasn’t arrested until more than six weeks after Martin’s death, and it’s unclear whether he was ever in danger. McDonald is black, and a trans woman, and had already suffered serious injuries; Schmitz was a white cis man. McDonald was arrested at the scene and her bail was set at $500,000, while the group of her attackers left the scene of the crime freely. It’s hard to find the justice in either case, but the two taken together put the logic behind them into terrible focus.

In response to the criticism around the case (Leslie Feinberg was arrested for spray painting FREE CECE on on the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, and jailed without bail) the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office released a statement affirming that:

“Gender, race, sexual orientation and class are not part of the decision-making process. The charges filed took into account the evidence in this case; this outcome is an example of the criminal justice responding proportionately to a tragic situation.”

If one is willing to be very generous, the county’s aspirations towards making judicial decisions blind to gender, race, and trans* status is at least well-intentioned; it speaks to a desire to provide equal justice for all. But what’s incredibly clear in this case is that gender, race, and trans* status are very much part of the “decision-making process” when it comes to violence, both individual and systemic. To pretend otherwise when considering that violence in a court of law is a betrayal of the people the law is meant to serve, and functions only to perpetuate that gender-based, race-based, and transphobic violence. It is the opposite of justice.

In a particularly jaw-dropping sound bite, Judge Daniel Moreno, who presided over McDonald’s trial, told her “Some have indicated that you feel a great deal of remorse… I hope that’s true, because that is the only thing that could make a difference in your future.” McDonald will likely spend roughly two years in jail. Right now, it seems clear that the system responsible for sending her there feels no remorse. It’s the rest of our shared responsibility to change that, for that seems to be the only thing that really could make a difference in CeCe McDonald’s future, and our own.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1089 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. the dyke march at TC pride will be inspired by the FREE CECE movement. mpls queers are organizing..as they have all year.

    goes to show no matter how ‘gay-friendly’ a city is, does not mean that they are lgbT-friendly.

  2. 1)A self-defense reading of “reasonable force” is usually (and I say that to cover my butt, because as far as I know it’s ALWAYS) EQUAL force. If the dude attacking her did not have a weapon – and even then it has to be a weapon of equal or greater force – then her self-defense claim will not work.

    That is not biased. It is not because she is trans. That is just the way the law works. Claiming self-defense is extremely difficult and usually impossible. If someone attacks you with a knife and you shoot them, you cannot claim self-defense.

    Yes, really.

    2) All crimes are hate crimes. Hate crime legislation is bullshit. It amounts to policing people’s thoughts. It doesn’t matter WHY a crime was committed. That is not the business of the law. A murder isn’t any worse because it was white-on-black instead of black-on-black.

    3) CECE MCDONALD COMMITTED HOMICIDE! Even if she DID plead self-defense, she should be charged with manslaughter. Do you really expect there not to be a trial when you stab someone to death with a pair of scissors?

    What’s even better is that I bet all the people who are all up in arms about the Trayvon Martin case saying “Someone died, someone has to be charged with something!” will look at this and be like “What, so unfair.”

    ??? No, even if a jury accepts the self-defense claim, 2nd degree murder or manslaughter would still be legitimate. Which is the similarity of this case and Zimmerman’s, because we do know that Zimmerman suffered injuries.

    4) Where the hell is the prison going to house this person where she doesn’t get harassed by her fellow inmates? Honestly! Can you imagine the security nightmare? Yes, it sucks, and no, the jail is not handling it well or helping anything by “misgendering” her. But I don’t see that ending well with McDonald anywhere but isolation, to be honest; do you?

    • I totally understand-murder is wrong, period. Yet, I think what is most disturbing about this is that it all started simply because CeCe was singled out for being “different”. This happened because the original insulters and attackers were hateful and most likely many types of phobic. Why can’t there be justice for that too?!

    • 1)That is not biased. It is not because she is trans. That is just the way the law works. Claiming self-defense is extremely difficult and usually impossible. If someone attacks you with a knife and you shoot them, you cannot claim self-defense.

      Well, there is no way CeCe could have done a metal detection scan of this person as they were pursuing her and determine that he did not have a gun concealed on his person (MN has a conceal/carry law). Also, let’s remember that she was stabbed in the face – enough to lacerate her salivary gland. Yes, really.

      2) All crimes are hate crimes. Hate crime legislation is bullshit. It amounts to policing people’s thoughts. It doesn’t matter WHY a crime was committed. That is not the business of the law. A murder isn’t any worse because it was white-on-black instead of black-on-black.

      Violence against a person because of an identity is not only assaulting the person – it perpetuates a climate of fear for the entire group (in this instance, all trans women). Did you know that in April of this year alone, 3 trans women of color were murdered because they were trans women? That incites an overall feeling of fear to a whole identity group – and if you were a trans woman of color you may understand this. This person was not trying to take CeCe’s money or to sexually assault her. He read her as a trans woman and that caused his attack.

      3) CECE MCDONALD COMMITTED HOMICIDE! Even if she DID plead self-defense, she should be charged with manslaughter. Do you really expect there not to be a trial when you stab someone to death with a pair of scissors?

      It’s unfortunate that this racist, transphobic prick had to die. It’s too bad he was on meth, cocaine, and alcohol. It’s too bad that he was raised in such a way that getting a swastika tattooed on his chest was part of his experience. But he made the choice to physically attack a young woman who was minding her business, and and he picked the wrong woman to fuck with.

      I honestly wonder – if this had been a white, cisgender woman as the victim of a viscous attack – would you be saying the exact same things?

      Educate yourself. supportcece.wordpress.com

    • wow.

      hate crime legislation is policing people’s thoughts?

      that’s just…wow.

      your comment is perhaps the laziest comment i’ve ever seen on autostraddle. “well its homicide!!!” is offensive on SO MANY levels, and especially when Rachel took the time to pretty much spell it out, statistics included, as to why this is not “just homicide.” Take some time to educate yourself on intersectionality and privilege, it will really be worth your while.

      And read Stone Butch Blues if you haven’t already.

      • While I don’t agree with everything that Hannah says, I think her comment is far from lazy. The fact that you disagree with her statements do not make them lazy.

        It is hard to show that using deadly force is self defense. Typically, there has to be something along the lines of a reasonable belief that if you don’t use deadly force you will either die or be seriously injured. I’m not sure what the self-defense law is in Minnesota so the statistics about the terrible violence directed against trans* individuals in the state would play into the determination of reasonableness, but the statistics alone do not automatically justify the use of deadly force. And I’m not sure if these circumstances qualify because I don’t have enough information.

        I think it is also important to note what exactly she was convicted of, she plead guilty to negligently killing the asshole (that description may be unkind to assholes). That is pretty much as light of a charge as the prosecutor could give her while still charging her with his death.

        The woman that attacked her has also been arrested and will hopefully spend a long time in jail and the man is dead.

        Where I disagree with Hannah is that I agree with hate crime legislation because what society defines as a hate crime has different impacts than regular crimes. But I do understand the philosophical basis of her statement.

        I also think she glossed over the problems with the prison misgendering CeCe way too much. A male prison is a lot more dangerous for her than a female one and is just the wrong one.

        I think the main problems with this situation is not that she is going to jail, but that she is going to the wrong jail, from the description above her treatment when she was arrested was unacceptable, and society sucks enough that that sort of hatred can exist.

        • I called her comment lazy because, as I said:

          ” ‘well its homicide!!!” is offensive on SO MANY levels, and especially when Rachel took the time to pretty much spell it out, statistics included, as to why this is not “just homicide.’ ”

          It is lazy to read something that clearly discussed the intersectionality of gender, race, and the legal system and come out with “she committed homicide!” (in all capitals, no less.), then wipe away other concerns with a quotation marks around misgendering. (I mean, what do those quotation marks actually mean? Is she mocking the word? devaluing the concept? just a fan of inappropriate quotation marks?)

          Me characterizing her comments as lazy has very little to do with “the fact that I disagree with her statements,” (especially when the only thing I directly addressed was her comment about hate crime) but thanks for trying to attribute that to me.

          • I thought your comment about laziness was references the entire post rather than just the HOMICIDE part and how she dealt with the misgendering issue (which I agree is something that is completely fucked and should not be glossed over). I’m sorry for misreading and attributing that view to you.

            I do still disagree that the homicide part was lazy (but I do think all caps is annoying) since she gives the reasons for her view earlier in discussing what self defense and manslaughter mean. This article addresses both the complex system and this specific case. I do not think it is lazy to just comment on the specific case, and in this instance a man (a bad man, but still a human) is dead, his kids lost their father, and if the situation (that the asshole caused) could have ended without a death it should have.

            (I also acknowledge as someone who is cisgendered and white I am coming at this issue from a place of privilege, but I stand by my views.)

        • “Typically, there has to be something along the lines of a reasonable belief that if you don’t use deadly force you will either die or be seriously injured.”

          You don’t think being hit in the face and then chased down doesn’t constitute fear for one’s life? Especially as a trans woman of color? This world pretty much hates trans people of any stripe as a general rule so it seems entirely reasonable to me that once one has already been fucking assaulted, one would think the next step is to become a cold corpse trans statistic.

          • I wanted to add a clarification to your comment (which is right on): CeCe was not simply “hit in the face.” She was violently stabbed in the face with a broken glass by Molly Flaherty, the woman who initiated the fight according to Jenny Thoreson, the girlfriend of CeCe’s other attacker, Dean Schmitz.

            Here’s the quote from Thoreson: “I’ll take all three of you bitches on!” Flaherty screamed, according to Thoreson. “She threw the first punch and I heard glass break. It was on.”

            CeCe sustained multiple wounds, including a deep serious stab wound from the broken glass. 11-15 stitches were required to close the primary gash, once the police had finally been gracious enough (/sarcasm) to allow her medical treatment after hours of interrogation and time locked in solitary confinement.

            There’s a picture of the wounds on CeCe’s face, after most of the blood had been cleaned up by nurses and before she received the stitches. After sustaining such an injury, no wonder she feared for her life when approached by a large, aggressive man whose toxicology tests reported the presence of methamphetamine, cocaine metabolites and a significant amount of alcohol.

            Furthermore, according to the bouncer and witnesses, Dean Schmitz approached her in a boxing stance, shuffling his feet and holding his fists up.

            His extensive criminal record includes multiple convictions for violent crimes, including assault and battery, so he was experienced in the science of beating people up. I’ve seen people with similar backgrounds square off for street fights.

            Their posture and obvious ability to do damage is terrifying. I’ve seen the results too. If you’re confronted by someone like that and you’re not thinking self-defense, especially when you’re bleeding from deep wounds on your face, you’re (unfortunately) naive and definitely in grave danger.

        • Right… I’m not positive the jury made the wrong call (they did spend more time on this and see more evidence than I have – granted, juries are sometimes awful)…

          … but deciding to put her in a male prison? Even if the verdict is 100% proper, I can’t imagine any legitimate purpose for putting her through that kind of humiliation, trauma, and extreme risk of rape.

    • 1)Reasonable force does not mean equal force. That’s just blatantly, idiotically, wrong on your part.

      2) Not all crimes are hate crimes. Hate crimes have a specific definition, look it up. Hate crimes are also not a thought crime, again you’re blatantly and idiotically wrong.

      3) All caps doesn’t make your argument/claim persuasive. Cece MacDonald acted in self-defense. You assert that she should be charged with various things, but you’ve already shown that you don’t have the brightest legal mind so I’m not inclined to give your assertions much credit. In a case like this, it would be completely reasonable for the prosecuting attorney to determine that Cece MacDonald acted in self-defense and not bring charges against her.

      Also, “someone died, someone has to be charged” is a load of shit. People die in all sorts of situations where it is not only appropriate but the best course of action that charges are not brought.

      4) She is a woman, she should be housed with women. This is not rocket science nor is it a security nightmare by any measure.

  3. Ethan-agreed. Plus all of the things that go on every day but are not even considered “crimes”… I work in a high school where students are forced to drop out – all of the time – because of the trans/homophobia they face. It is horrifying. What happened to CeCe is just the tip of the iceberg and that is even MORE disturbing. Hopefully this draws enough attention to not only free her, but also hold those who started the fight ACCOUNTABLE.

    • I haven’t heard much about the girl who started the fight, so I’m hoping shes in a world of shit right now. I do know, off the top of my head, of at least two instances where someone died in the act of committing a crime, and the accomplice to said crime was charged with murder as a result. If we must charge someone with the death I’d say the girl who started the fight is a good place to start.

  4. Ughhhh! this is so terrible, but so typical…

    Anyone read “Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex”?

    If not, please read it now. Thanks.

      • Just to clarify… the vast majority of trans women who are in prisons are incarcerated in men’s facilities. It has nothing to do with one’s legal gender or identity, they assign by genitalia. Several states, like Idaho, Tennessee and several others will always assign any known trans woman (even post SRS) into men’s facilities. So, while what’s happening to CeCe is horrific, at least it’s finally opening people’s eyes to what happens to virtually all incarcerated trans women.
        Many (not all) trans women are often also kept in solitary confinement up to 23 hours a day for ‘their own safety’ and are in solitary for their complete incarceration.

        For further action on this subject, I suggest contacting the TGI Justice Project: http://www.tgijp.org/

        And for an excellent resource about this issue, watch the documentary Cruel and Unusual (which is currently on YouTube in its entirety) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rITcTObzcu0

  5. I’m planning on coming out in about two weeks to my entire family and in-laws and stories like this scare the crap out of me. It’s because of stories like this that I feel the need to buy security equipment for my home.

    Every day when I walk past people on the street I think of CeCe and Chrissy Polis, and all the others like me and I think “will it be today? will it be him?” It terrifies me to walk out the door and one of the only comforts I take is that every step I take while out is another step for all trans women. If they want to scare us back in the closet then the only way for us to win is to stand proud in defiance of their bigotry.

  6. I haven’t read all the comments yet, so apologies if I am duplicating this suggestion and info.

    First, I am so outraged by this entire example of American (In)Justice at work that, right now, I’m short of words to express everything I have to say about this evil travesty.

    So, I have a positive suggestion instead:

    I sent my first letter to CeCe last week. I’ve been following her situation for a while and doing what I can to support her.

    I’m so impressed by the compassion and strength she’s expressed in her writings and comments. Very few people could maintain such positivity and control under theses circumstances. She’s not an experienced lawyer, or a CEO who’s taken years of spokesperson training. She’s a 23-year-old student. Mad respect. I couldn’t manage a tenth of her composure, compassion and positivity.

    If we can’t get her released, please remember to write her. She has a strong community with her, but one of the worst things about being incarcerated is the isolation. People go on with their lives on the outside while you’re doing time on the inside.

    Also, trans* inmates are often confined to solitary for a handful of reasons, most of them bullshit and all of them punitive in the final analysis. (And, yes, that’s torture, but I won’t digress on that. Now.) She’ll face other dangers inside and I’m hoping/praying she’ll be okay. So please write her!

    The Support CeCe page will update her address info soon, but I’m sure any correspondence will reach her through her friends at http://supportcece.wordpress.com/. I’m sure she’d love artwork, poetry, whatever. Prisons are strict on inmates’ mail of course, so no sculptures or castles made of glitter-frosted cupcakes. Unfortunately.

    Speaking of food, if you have a few bucks, put it on her commissary. Prison extras that make life more livable… like remotely edible food and shampoo that’s not vile, etc.… are expensive. I know a lot of us are spending change to get through the last week of the month and nickles on the 30th, but a dollar or two from a lot of us will make a big difference to CeCe. Again, Support CeCe will help with the info.

    I’ve also sent books to friends inside through Amazon because Amazon has an established delivery system for prisons. And, naturally, prisons make it as difficult as possible to allow inmates reading material. (I’m still pissed off at some employee in the Pennsylvania system who stole 4 books I specially chose and sent to a friend. And I was BROKE.)

    I’m not plugging Amazon: it’s just that they have a system set up & prisons will steal or refuse your stuff in a heartbeat & justify it through any of about a million regulations. This is really important, so mods, please don’t delete the company name unless absolutely necessary.

    I’m going to go draw something now so I can send it to CeCe. CeCe, Trayvon, Brandy Martell, Marissa Alexander*… I’m so fucking angry I punched a(nother) hole in the wall. At least I’ve learned to patch drywall. Keep up the good fight you guys. We have to keep fighting. (And not punching walls. That was dumb.)

    *Marissa Alexander is the FLA woman recently sentenced to a mandatory 20 years for firing a warning shot into the wall to get her abusive husband, against whom she had taken out a restraining order, to leave her house so he couldn’t hurt her or her kids. The fascist (Yeah, I said it. & I meant it.) douchebag governor of FLA isn’t likely to issue a pardon either.

    I can’t help but think of a quote I read yesterday… “The Second Amendment: The White to Bear Arms”. (Male, Cis, Straight w/ No Kinks, Able-Bodied, Societally-Approved BMI, N. Euro-featured* are implied.)

    * some restrictions may apply. Ask the Anglo-Saxons for a free brochure about the Celts.

  7. This might sound weird, but I personally feel like I owe CeCe a huge thank you. If even just one cissexist, heterosexist, racist-ass creep decides to keep his fuckery to himself because he remembers that us fierce queer/trans*folk will fight back, that’s amazing.

    Ms. McDonald resisted death at the hands white-supremacist, cissexist douchebags and lived. That’s why the state is punishing her and why we should be supporting her.

  8. Hyperbole isn’t always our friend. Was this unfair? Obviously. Is it atrocious that a victim was put on the stand for what they did in self-defense? Of course. But Cece was NOT sentenced for surviving, she was sentenced for killing. Regardless of what you think of the killing and the circumstances surrounding it, to claim that the survival is what got her in trouble is disingenuous at best and propaganda at worst. Carefully choosing phrasing to make an impact is fine; saying something that’s demonstrably inaccurate is not. When you know you’re on the right side, you shouldn’t need to lie, misrepresent or obfuscate.

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