CeCe McDonald murder trial
"Black lady with a knife."
When the first 911 call came in, that's all police had to go on, because that's all Gary Gilbert could see by the dim light outside the Schooner Tavern, where he worked security.
Meanwhile, Dean Schmitz was bleeding out on the sidewalk in front of the bar. It didn't look good.
"Send an ambulance right now," Gilbert said into the phone. "We need one."
The operator wanted a description of the perpetrator, so Gilbert followed the suspect as she fled from the bar. There wasn't much more to report: Shorts. A weave. Maybe about 5'7", 5'8". She appeared to be heading toward Target.
Back at the bar, Anthony Stoneburg, who was in the neighborhood to visit his aunt, had the horror of stumbling upon the grotesque scene. There was a three-quarter-inch long puncture wound in Schmitz's chest. It ripped more than three inches into his body cavity, all the way to the right ventricle of his heart. His white button-down shirt was slowly staining red from the geyser of blood. He was barely breathing.
"Baby, don't die!" cried Molly Flaherty, a woman sitting on the ground next to him.
Stoneburg climbed onto Schmitz and tried to plug the wound, but was too late. Schmitz — a father and, that summer night, a patron at the Schooner Tavern — died in the ambulance.
Despite having little to go on, Minneapolis police officers managed to find the suspect in the parking lot of Cub Foods across Minnehaha Avenue from the Schooner. She was not hard to spot; upon seeing the squad car, she flagged the officers down.
She was hardly the portrait of a cold-blooded killer: A 23-year-old transgender woman studying fashion at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, she had no previous history of violent crime.
Nothing about this case would turn out to be ordinary.
In the 11 months following Schmitz's death, the story of how it happened has been told over and over. It has been told to police, attorneys, journalists, politicians, and protestors. In its many retellings, the general details remain mostly the same, but debate centers on who is the protagonist, and who is the villain.
After police arrested her outside of Cub Foods, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald with two counts of second-degree murder, which could carry a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Her supporters, however, say she was the victim of a brutal attack and should never have been charged with a crime. They talk about her as a folk hero of sorts, a transgender Matthew Shepard.
"This could have been any of us," says Billy Navaro, a transgender man and co-founder of Support CeCe, an advocacy group for McDonald. "She wasn't asking for any trouble whatsoever. She was going to the grocery store with her family."
City Councilman Cam Gordon publicly announced his support for McDonald, calling the incident "another example [of] transgender women of color being targeted for hate- and bias-related violence."
National transgender celebrities, including author and activist Leslie Fineberg, traveled to Minneapolis to visit McDonald in jail and attend her court appearances. Supporters held rallies and dance parties outside the Hennepin County jail in her honor.
But Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman doesn't see her as a hero. He argues that McDonald is guilty of committing murder, and that the issue has been unfairly politicized. The fact that she happens to be transgender, Freeman says, is inconsequential.
"We see all kinds of crime by all sorts of people against all sorts of other people," says Freeman. "We try to review it as racially blind, as sexual-orientation blind, as economically blind as we can be. The scales of justice have got a blindfold on them for a reason, and we try to follow that."
What caused the tragedy outside the Schooner Tavern that night may have been bad timing more than anything else. It was the chance meeting of two people who couldn't have been more different. Together, they were primed to explode.
On the night of June 5, 2011, Latavia Taylor was happy. She had recently moved into a new apartment off East Lake Street, a brick building on a quaint, green corner of Minneapolis, right across from the Church of St. Albert the Great. McDonald was her roommate, and a friend so close, they referred to each other as cousins.
"If I am hungry, she will bring something to eat," Taylor says of McDonald. "If I don't have no clothes, no shoes, she will buy it."
Three of their friends came over: Larry Tyaries Thomas ("Ty"), Zavawn Smith ("Zay"), and Roneal Harris. Early in the evening, they barbecued in the yard of the apartment complex, then spent a quiet night lounging around.
"We was all chillin', drinking, smoking," says Thomas.
Around 11:30 p.m., Taylor suggested they walk to Cub Foods to pick up some groceries. The store was little more than a half-mile from the apartment: a right out the door, a quick left on 29th Street, and another right along Minnehaha Avenue, which would bring them to the shared parking lot of Cub and Target.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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.
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.
"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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