CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

The judge produced the book on sentencing guidelines and flipped to the minimum punishment for second-degree manslaughter: 41 months. It was a good enough compromise for both sides to agree. Now, the defense just had to convince McDonald.

For the second time that day, Izek and LeRoy met with their client to talk deals, this time in the empty courtroom. The offer was generous. Factoring in time already served and good behavior, McDonald could be free in a year and a half. But in taking it, McDonald would have to throw out her legal claim of self-defense and confess that she created an unreasonable risk of injury or death by pointing the scissors toward Schmitz, who was unarmed.

She sat quietly, contemplating.

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

"Should we go back to the judge and tell him it's okay?" Izek asked.

"Yes," McDonald finally uttered.

That morning, with tears streaming down her face, she took the witness stand and put the confession on the record.

Five days after taking the plea deal, McDonald calls from the Hennepin County jail.

By the time she is formally sentenced on June 4, it will have been one day short of a full year since Dean Schmitz's life ended. Even with all the time that has gone by, she says it's still difficult to accept that it all really happened.

"You see it in the movies," she explains. "You never think it's going to be part of your life.... People think it doesn't bother me, but it does."

That night was not her first experience with being confronted because of her lifestyle. Originally from south Chicago, she says that slurs have always been an unfortunate part of her life. "It actually started in my own household."

She learned to cope with these slights long ago. She came to think of herself as a "peace keeper," someone to diffuse a potentially explosive situation before it gets out of control.

But something about that night outside the Schooner Tavern was different. It just hurt more.

"It was an overwhelming feeling," she says. "Someone was trying to take everything from me."

Asked why she accepted the plea deal, McDonald says it was for her loved ones. Instead of risking decades in prison, she will be out in a fraction of the time and be able to pick up where she left off.

"I thought it was the logical thing," she says. "I thought it would hurt my family if I had to do 20 years."

But the sentence won't be a cakewalk, and her fate has yet to be fully decided. Her attorneys believe that if she can complete the physical transformation and be legally deemed a woman, she may be able to get into a female prison. They fear for the safety of a young, black, transgender inmate in a male prison.

Asked about her sentencing, McDonald seems resigned.

"I'd rather do it and just have it be over with," she says. "I've faced worse things in my life than prison."

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