CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

"CeCe's crime is surviving a vicious attack!" a support group member shouts.

"Why are you taking all your evidence from racist white people?" demands another.

"We took evidence from everyone," retorts Freeman.

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

"How easy do you think it is for a colored trans woman to walk up to a police officer?"

The accusations continue, and Freeman maintains a practiced calm. The support committee sees its cue, stands up, and storms out of the room.


The next day, there is an air of suspense at the Legal Rights Center's weekly meeting, where Izek and LeRoy are noticeably absent. Judge Daniel Moreno has proposed a plea deal. The prosecutors haven't agreed yet, but they're willing to take it upstairs if McDonald accepts.

Instead of two counts of second-degree murder, McDonald would plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. She could be sentenced to as few as 48 months, and admit only to criminal negligence, instead of murder. With good behavior, McDonald could get parole in two years.

It's a good deal, and McDonald's attorneys know it. Now, they just need to convince their client.

Thirty minutes into the meeting, LeRoy walks into the room after meeting with McDonald in jail, his tie askew. He collapses into a chair, and leans in toward Friedman.

"Going to trial," he whispers.

Friedman smiles. "Okay."

"She's talking about bringing in national figures," LeRoy says. "That makes me worry for her that she's doing it for the wrong reasons, but it's her choice."

He leans back in his chair. "It's quite the risk."

Friedman announces the news to the room, and the meeting breaks. Now that the trial is only days away, there is plenty to discuss. The judge hasn't ruled on any motions, but gave some indication on what's going to make it in and what's not. He will likely accept the toxicology expert, but the swastika isn't looking likely. On the bright side, that might be grounds for a later appeal.

LeRoy, who specializes in worst-case scenarios, is playing devil's advocate. He's afraid McDonald might become antagonized and flash anger on the stand, "and the jury will say, 'Oh, there it is.'"

"I give her a 50-50 chance," says LeRoy.


On the first day of pretrial hearings, McDonald's supporters flock to the courthouse in droves. Fewer than half can fit inside the courtroom, so the rest sit outside, trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings through the crack between the doors.

Before jury selection can begin, the judge must first rule on motions from both sides. As expected, the prosecution disputes the admittance of the swastika tattoo, arguing it is not relevant and unfairly prejudicial, given no one knew about it until the autopsy.

Izek contests the prosecutor's claims, arguing that the tattoo communicates Schmitz's feelings toward people who are different than himself. "And CeCe McDonald is about as different from Dean Schmitz than anyone."

The courtroom audience snickers.

"It wasn't communicated," retorts prosecutor Amy Sweasy, "just like something under Mr. Schmitz's bed wasn't communicated."

Judge Daniel Moreno says he will weigh the arguments and rule on the tattoo later. Throughout the morning, the hearing continues. The defense's toxicology expert can testify, but only to the effects of the drugs in general, rather than how they influenced Schmitz's behavior that night. Schmitz's criminal history is not allowed.

The prosecution's request to admit McDonald's statements on blogs and Facebook is permitted, as is a motion to impeach McDonald's testimony based on a previous conviction for writing a bad check, because it speaks to her believability.

The judge also makes a ruling on appropriate clothing to be worn during the trial, prohibiting the audience from wearing any garments or accessories displaying support for McDonald.

Moreno ultimately decides that the swastika tattoo will not be admitted, ruling that it does not speak to Schmitz's intent, as the defense had argued.

"The tattoo itself is not evidence that [Schmitz] subscribed to any belief," writes Moreno in his order. "Specifically, evidence of the tattoo does not establish that [Schmitz] intended to threaten, fight, or kill anyone."


If two jurors hadn't been running late on the morning of May 2, the murder trial of Chrishaun McDonald might have ended differently. But while they waited, Judge Moreno sent the other potential jurors out for coffee, and used the spare time to meet with the lawyers once more in his chambers.

Had Izek and LeRoy talked to their client any more about a settlement? The judge wanted an answer before noon.

The two lawyers met with McDonald in a holding room that morning, and presented the judge's question.

"At this point, we just wanted to see if it was even a possibility," says Izek.

But McDonald was still hesitant. She sat silently for a moment, then conceded only that she would consider it.

Izek and LeRoy brought her answer back to the judge's chambers to talk specifics with the prosecution.

We can do 48, offered Sweasy.

"We said forget it," recalls LeRoy. "It's gotta be better than 48, because that's an absolute no."

The defense countered with an offer of 36 months, but it was too low for the prosecution to consider.

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