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Transgender woman gave up self-defense claim in plea deal

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Chrishaun McDonald
Chrishaun McDonald was accused of fatally stabbing Dean Schmitz in an incident, June 5, 2011.
Courtesy of Chrishaun McDonald

The murder trial of Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald came to an abrupt end Wednesday when she accepted a last-minute plea agreement. The LGBT community rallied around the transgender woman who claimed she was the victim of a hate crime. 

Opening arguments were to begin Wednesday when McDonald, of Minneapolis, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.

The plea deal was an anti-climactic finish to the saga that began the night of June 5, 2011.

The 23-year-old McDonald, and her friends, all black, were walking to a grocery store off Lake Street in Minneapolis. They crossed paths with a group of white adults outside the nearby Schooner Tavern. The group taunted McDonald with racist and anti-gay slurs, and a woman smashed a glass against McDonald's face. The cuts to McDonald's cheek would require 11 stitches.

That story struck a chord with Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in Washington D.C. Keisling is calling attention to McDonald's case because she says it exposes a pattern of violence against transgender people. Last month, three transgender women of color across the country were killed in separate attacks.

"As trans-people, we hear about murders of trans-people in that same circumstance that CeCe was in. The usual result is the person is dead — that is, the trans-person is dead. Every trans-person in the country in their heart knows that she was in danger of dying right there at that moment."

Keisling said McDonald is being punished for surviving the attack. 

Mara Keisling
Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality, is supporting Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald, a transgender woman accused of murdering Dean Schmitz of Richfield last summer. Keisling, seated at a Minneapolis coffee shop on April 30, 2012, says she believes McDonald was acting in self-defense.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

But McDonald did more than survive it. She stabbed Dean Schmitz, who was in the rival group, with a pair of scissors. Schmitz was not armed.

"This is not a self-defense case, because if you have a weapon, you have a duty to retreat," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

McDonald did not try to walk away, Freeman said, nor did she act reasonably toward Schmitz. He said McDonald was beating up the woman who threw the glass when Schmitz pulled McDonald away.

"There was no indication in that point in time that there was any weapon about to be used against Ms. McDonald. Nor was there any evidence that she was in any threat of harm by the victim," Freeman said. "She pulls her scissors out and stabs him in the chest. That's not self-defense."

Freeman said he deplores violence against transgender people, and against racial minorities, but he had to put aside patterns of crime when deciding how to prosecute this case.

Leading up to jury selection this week, McDonald's supporters — including about 17,000 who signed a petition — wanted Freeman to drop the charges.

Yesterday, McDonald's lawyer, Hersch Izek, said her plea agreement should not excuse the actions of the dead man, Dean Schmitz.

CeCe McDonald supporters
Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald supporters Adrienne Pabst listen to speakers in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, May 2, 2012 after it was announced that McDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter for a stabbing last summer.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"But for the fact he leveled that speech and afterward decided to pick a fight with Ms. McDonald, there would not be any case," Izek said. "Ms. McDonald would not have been charged, and Mr. Schmitz would not have been killed."

Izek said Freeman was overaggressive in initially charging McDonald with second-degree murder.

Legal experts say if this case went to trial, it would have been a tough call, and the verdict would have come down to whose story the jury believed. In self-defense claims, who started the fight is important. But the jury would also consider if the defendant acted proportionately to the threat.

McDonald's supporters who packed the courtroom during pre-trial hearings thought they had more ammunition in their case after autopsy reports revealed that Schmitz had a swastika tattooed to his chest. McDonald's attorney argued that symbol of hate explained why he antagonized McDonald. But the judge ruled against introducing images of the tattoo into the courtroom.

William Mitchell law professor Ted Sampsell-Jones said he understands why the photos wouldn't have been admissible, as much as McDonald's friends wanted them to be.

"You're concerned about giving that kind of evidence to the jury because you're worried the jury might say, 'This guy deserved to die. And even if she didn't need to do it, we're going to find her not guilty, because this was a bad person who deserved to die," Sampsell-Jones said.

That's a call the jury never had to make. As part of the plea deal, McDonald will likely be sentenced next month to about three and-a-half years in prison, a fraction of what she could have received if found guilty of murder. Sentencing will be June 4.