CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

Rather than accidentally stabbing Schmitz, Freeman claims that McDonald stepped forward and stuck Schmitz with the blade. Though the murder weapon was never found, it is believed to be scissors.

Freeman pulls a long, metal, black-handled pair from his desk to illustrate.

"The description of it was very forceful, because you've got to go through some stuff there," says Freeman, tapping on his own breastbone.

Dean Schmitz died outside the Schooner Tavern from a stab wound to the heart
courtesy of Charles Pelfrey
Dean Schmitz died outside the Schooner Tavern from a stab wound to the heart
Chrishaun McDonald, a transgender woman, was studying fashion at MCTC before being charged with murder
Chrishaun McDonald, a transgender woman, was studying fashion at MCTC before being charged with murder

There's no evidence to suggest Schmitz posed a threat to McDonald's life, says Freeman. It was someone else who had smashed a glass on McDonald's face, and if McDonald did believe she was in danger, she had every opportunity to run away.

"You have a duty, when you're not in your home, to flee if possible," Freeman says. "The evidence here does not reflect self-defense. She stepped forward to thrust a weapon into a person that had not assaulted her. That, to me, just doesn't fit."

Freeman also points out that McDonald's story has changed since the incident. Though she admitted to stabbing Schmitz that night to police, she later wrote a letter to the Star Tribune claiming someone else had done it and that she only told the officers what they wanted to hear.

When the Star Tribune printed excerpts from McDonald's correspondence, prosecutors officially requested the letter in its entirety. After a court battle with the newspaper, Freeman's office was eventually able to get a copy to be used as evidence.

"Ms. McDonald has now shared several different stories about what she believes happened," says Freeman. "We don't know what she's going to say, frankly."

Asked about Schmitz's swastika tattoo, Freeman is quick to dismiss it as irrelevant.

"She couldn't see it, nor could anyone else," Freeman says. "It adds a little bit of sensationalism to the case, obviously."

(Schmitz's brother, Charles Pelfrey, says Schmitz was not a racist, and that one of his best friends was black. "When Dean was younger, he had a stay in St. Cloud [prison]," says Pelfrey. "He happened to fall into a certain group, that ended up being white supremacist people, in order to survive. You know, you gotta pick a group.")

All that matters, Freeman argues, is what happened in the short time the two strangers crossed paths outside the Schooner Tavern that night.

"What were his actions just prior to her taking the affirmative step of thrusting a sharp object in his chest with sufficient force to kill him?" asks Freeman. "There is no evidence that I'm aware of that he had any weapon in his hand, or that he had done anything to McDonald, other than to be part of this group, where there were shouts from virtually everyone around."

Deep in the bowels of the Government Center, in an underground room that smells of stale coffee, 11 members of McDonald's support group stare across a conference table at two employees from the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. The room is silent, and everyone seems to be asking the same unspoken question: What the hell are we doing here?

After months of requests, Freeman has agreed to take a meeting with McDonald's supporters. Though no one on McDonald's side knows why — especially now, just six days before the trial — they decide that it must be a "sign of weakness," and have every intention of using it to their best advantage.

The plan has already been agreed upon: They will first let Freeman explain himself, then they will each say their piece, and storm out of the room without allowing for a chance to respond.

Freeman walks into the room wearing a black suit. He introduces himself to everyone individually, but none accept his offer of a handshake. He takes a seat at the far end of the table.

"Thank you for meeting with me," Freeman begins. He's been receiving petitions from people from all over the world protesting McDonald's imprisonment. "I'm here to get more community input. I'm here to do more than talk."

What happened outside the Schooner Tavern was "tragic," Freeman says, both for Schmitz and McDonald, who still bears the scar on her face. He has referred the case against the person who hit McDonald with the glass to the Washington County Attorney's Office for charges, in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

Freeman's office has worked with the Twin Cities LGBT community in the past, he notes. Just last year, he earned a conviction against the man who murdered Chrissie Bates, a transgender woman.

"We are not perfect," he says. "We make mistakes. And I just want to tell you I personally reviewed all the documents in this case, which I only do for a few every year." The case will go to trial Monday, he says, and "we'll accept the jury's decision."

The other side of the room sits silent. Finally someone fires back: "We're here to ask you again to drop the charges, and we're wondering when we can take CeCe home!"

"We're not going to drop the charges," replies Freeman. "You haven't seen all the evidence we have."

"We've seen this heightened violence," says Katie Burgess, director of the Trans Youth Support Network. "I think that's the evidence you haven't considered."

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