CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

As they walked from the apartment, laughing and trading jokes, a squad car pulled up and shined a spotlight on them. "What are you doing out here?" the officer asked.

"What you mean what are you doing out?" replied Thomas. "We're just going to get something to eat."

The officer cruised behind them for a few minutes, then peeled away. If he would have followed them another couple of blocks, the group of friends might have made it to Cub safely. But that didn't happen.

McDonald was hit in the face with a beer glass the night of the incident
courtesy of Support CeCe! and Chrishaun McDonald
McDonald was hit in the face with a beer glass the night of the incident
The paths of Chrishaun McDonald and Dean Schmitz crossed outside the Schooner Tavern, and all hell broke loose
photo by City Pages
The paths of Chrishaun McDonald and Dean Schmitz crossed outside the Schooner Tavern, and all hell broke loose

Moments later, as they neared the intersection of 29th Street East and 27th Avenue South, they heard catcalls from across the street, outside the north entrance to a three-story red brick building on the corner. Above the building, a sign read, "SCHOONER."

Standing on the corner was Schmitz, a man who looked to be in his mid-40s, with a heavy build, mustache, and sandy blond hair. Flaherty, his ex-girlfriend, stood next to him, along with Jenny Thoreson, his current girlfriend. The three had stepped out of the bar for a cigarette. That's when they saw McDonald and her friends walking by.

What Schmitz and company called out, exactly, is subject to debate. In later interviews with police, Thoreson would only recall that it was something "derogatory" and "sarcastic."

"They were very feminine guys," she said, "something about their walk."

Flaherty's memory was even less specific, though she gave a similar description to police about the group's fashion, noting that one of them "was wearing booty shorts and a tank top," and that "he looked like he was ready to go to a recital."

Thomas's recollection of what he heard that night was far more detailed:

"Oh you faggots, you nigger lovers, and whoop-de-woo, you ain't nothing but a bunch of nigger babies," Thomas later recalled in a police interview. "So as they said all that, I go over there and talk to [Schmitz].

"I backed into the middle of the street, drop my belt like I am ready to fight. He just walk off. And that's when he started talking this stuff, like, 'Oh, look at the tranny over there, look at that tranny.'"

The back-and-forth escalated, and someone smashed a glass across McDonald's face, opening a gash in her left cheek.

"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."

From there, everyone remembers the brawl a little differently. David Crandell, Flaherty's boyfriend, stepped out of the bar for a cigarette to find multiple members of McDonald's group piled onto his girlfriend, punching, kicking, and beating her with belts, he told police. He wrestled with a few of the strangers, trying to pull them off Flaherty.

Gary Gilbert walked out of the bar to make a phone call and heard the sound of glass breaking on the street, he told police. He saw Schmitz, whom he recognized from the bar, pushing McDonald off the hog pile on Flaherty.

"He was just trying to shove her away," Gilbert recalled.

Schmitz and McDonald moved into the street, away from the rest of the group. McDonald appeared to be holding a blade, while Schmitz clenched his fists and approached her.

"He is just like shuffling his feet like, you know, something like you would do in boxing," Gilbert said.

"You gonna stab me, you bitch?" Schmitz asked McDonald, according to Gilbert.

The next thing Gilbert knew, Schmitz was hunched over.

"You stabbed me!" he accused McDonald.

"Yes, I did," McDonald replied.

After everyone saw Schmitz bleeding, the fighting abruptly stopped. A few members of McDonald's group fled the scene and boarded a Metro Transit bus, while McDonald and Thomas ran toward Cub Foods.

"That night, it was crazy," says Thomas. "It messed me all up. I'm still messed up from that night."

Just south of downtown Minneapolis, in the law offices of the Legal Rights Center, Hersch Izek sits across a desk cluttered with mislaid files and cassette tapes. A goateed man with graying hair, he keeps a suit coat hanging on the door, but in the office prefers a red flannel shirt and jeans. On the walls behind him, next to his William Mitchell law degrees, hang posters of Bob Marley and Noam Chomsky.

McDonald's case found its way to the Legal Rights Center within the first weeks after her arrest. Founded in 1970, the law office predates Hennepin County's modern-day public defender system, and still serves as an alternative form of free legal counsel for low-income clients. It has been a starting point for future judges and politicians, including Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. But unlike public defenders, the Legal Rights Center attorneys have complete discretion over cases, rather than being assigned clients through a judge.

Every Wednesday, attorneys, staff members, and volunteers meet in the center's conference room and run down a list of potential cases. They span the gamut of misdemeanors and mostly low-level felonies — DUI, domestic assault, theft — and the office sees its share of troubling cases. One client was charged with theft of infant milk; another stands accused of beating her child with an extension cord.

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