CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

"We have this sort of intuitively unusual purpose, in the sense that our mission of the organization is to better serve the community, just like any other nonprofit," says Michael Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center. "But at the same time, we're often working on behalf of people who have harmed the community."

In addition to legal representation, the law office's role is to find help for its clients, and staff members are more likely to choose cases on the faith that the defendant could still be turned onto the right path.

"When we're in court, we're 100 percent vigilantly behind that client, representing their interest," says Friedman. "But behind our own closed doors, if someone has done something that's wrong, our advocates are trying to help them."

McDonald's support group held rallies leading up to her trial, calling the court system discriminatory toward transgender people
Jayme Halbritter
McDonald's support group held rallies leading up to her trial, calling the court system discriminatory toward transgender people

Murder cases are extremely rare for the law office. When one does come to the table, everyone on staff has to agree to accept it, or the center won't take it. As a testament to how infrequently this happens, Izek had never gone to trial for a murder case before McDonald.

Izek doesn't deny that McDonald stabbed Schmitz in the heart that night outside the Schooner, nor does he debate that the stab wound killed Schmitz. But Izek contends his client isn't to blame for the 47-year-old's untimely death.

"She acted in self-defense," says Izek. "She stabbed him, but her actions were reasonable when confronted with the reasonable possibility of bodily harm or death to herself. That's what the jury instruction calls for in this kind of case."

He pulls up the transcript of the police interview with Gilbert, who will be the prosecution's key witness in the trial, and reads the excerpt aloud about Schmitz "shuffling his feet" like a boxer while he approached McDonald that night.

"I could see why you might want to take that as an aggressive kind of move on his part," says Izek, slapping the transcript.

McDonald was also bleeding profusely from the wound in her face from the shattered glass, and had every reason to believe she was in danger, Izek argues.

"I think it undercuts any kind of intentional action on her part."

After Schmitz pulled McDonald out of the brawl that night, she brandished the scissors to scare him off, says Izek. Then he attacked her, inadvertently jamming the scissors into his own chest.

Three weeks before the trial, the team working on McDonald's defense meets in a small conference room to bring everyone up to speed, including a few law students who have volunteered to help with the legwork. There's some information about Schmitz that the attorneys want the jury to hear, but they anticipate a fight from the prosecutors.

There is the matter of Schmitz's criminal history, which is extensive, and perhaps the reason he chose the word "Outlaw" to be tattooed across his back. Since turning 18, Schmitz has faced more than two dozen criminal cases, including felonies for theft, burglary, and attempted sale of a controlled substance.

But the defense is mostly interested in Schmitz's history of violence: He has been convicted of fifth-degree assault and domestic assault. Some of the incidents occurred so long ago, the court records have been destroyed.

"I've never had this situation, Hersch, how do you bring in a dead person's record?" asks Richard LeRoy, a senior attorney at the law office.

"I'm not worried about it," replies Hersch, stoically. "We'll get it in."

Another piece of evidence is an analysis of Schmitz's toxicology results by Dr. Leo J. Siroris, a University of Minnesota professor. A number of chemicals were present in Schmitz's system at the time of his death, including methamphetamine, opiates, and Benzoylecgognine, a metabolite of cocaine.

The levels of combined methamphetamine and Benzoylecgognine are of most concern, notes Siroris. "Sudden, unpredictable, and unwarranted violence can occur and is common," he says.

But the evidence that initiates the most discussion is found in the photos of Schmitz's autopsy. On his chest, only inches away from the stab wound, is a four-inch tattoo of a swastika.

"He honest to God has a swastika tattooed on his chest," says Willa Gelvick, a volunteer attorney helping with the case, to those hearing it for the first time.

"It goes into his speech, what he said," offers Izek.

"Do you need someone to come in and educate the jury on what the swastika means?" asks LeRoy.

"I think it's general knowledge," interjects Gelvick.

In the end, they submit the swastika tattoo as evidence by arguing it's relevant to Schmitz's intent. Though McDonald may not have seen it that night, the swastika is a well known symbol of "hatred and violence" toward black people, writes Gelvick in the motion to the judge.

For Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, the case against McDonald is a much simpler affair.

"She took a person's life," says Freeman, sitting in his office 20 stories above downtown Minneapolis. "Any civilization puts a penalty on taking the life of other individuals. The exceptions would be war time or self-defense. This was not self-defense. She deserves to do some time in prison."

Freeman's office filed charges against McDonald within days of the stabbing. Before doing so, prosecutors diligently reviewed the evidence, which included a taped confession from McDonald.

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