Friends and LGBTQ supporters gathered at the Hennepin County Government Center on April 27 for the final hearing of Chrishaun “Cece” McDonald for being charged two counts of second degree murder of Dean Shmitz, whom she claims she was violently assaulted by for race and gender.
McDonald, 23, is an African American transgender woman who was attending MCTC for fashion before the altercation took place around 12:30 a.m. on June 5, 2011 outside Schooner Tavern in South Minneapolis, while McDonald and three friends walked to the grocery store. White patrons supposedly called out racial and transphobic slurs and bashed a drink glass on McDonalds face, slicing her cheek. A brawl resulted as other patrons jumped in, and led to the death of Shmitz, 47, from McDonald allegedly stabbing him in the chest with scissors.
McDonald and her attorney, Hersch Izek, are citing accidental death in self-defense.
The case was brought to Katie Burgess, Executive Director for Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) by a street outreach worker, where Burgess then got in touch with a case manager who connected TYSN with McDonald from jail a few weeks later.
McDonald was the only person charged that night, and supporters advocate to drop the charges and feel the court is unjustly overlooking the hate crime that occurred.
“She is a young, trans woman of color. She’s at the intersection of so many different systems of injustice,” said Burgess. “That means there are so many people who can relate to her situation.”
Support committee member Lex Horan said the initial case coverage from the media was “extremely transphobic and biased against Cece,” and that it’s not unique for transgender and people of color to “face the violence she faced that night and end up incarcerated.”
A pressure campaign is admitted on Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman who has the power to drop McDonalds charges. An online petition gathered over 14,500 signatures to “Free Cece.” According to Freeman, race, gender, sexual orientation, and class do not play into his prosecution decisions, yet supporters would like to argue.
“We’ve never seen this kind of galvanizing moment around a singular person and issue in a long time,” said Burgess. “What happened to her speaks to the ways of white supremacy and transphobia play out in our society, and her case speaks out to the way [they both] play out in the judicial system.”
Schmitz had a tattoo of a swastika on his chest, which Izek at the hearing stated could be seen as a nonverbal expression of aggressive intent. Izek also requested an expert testimonial to educate the jury about transgender violence to prevent the members from basing their decision on false perceptions. Judge Daniel Moreno will rule whether the tattoo and testimonial are relevant towards the case.
Purple accessories and clothing items were worn by supporters at the hearing, as well as “Free Honee Bea” t-shirts. According to Burgess, Honee Bea is another nickname McDonalds friends and family call her by because of her “queen bee” attitude and love for Beyonce. However, the judge made a statement not allowing any form of open support to either parties the day of the trial.
“One of the things that she said to me on that first phone call was if you have faith, you can do anything,” Burgess said. “She carries, faith, hope, and love with her in a deep, passionate way that there’s instant connection for so many people to her case. Partly because of that leadership and also partly because of the dramatic injustices that are happening.”
McDonald was released on bail in October, but returned to incarceration due to alleged violations of her release in January. During her time out, McDonald was able to meet with supporters, be present at community meetings, and advocate publicising her story.
Horan said McDonald’s case is a hopeful indicator for others to fight back, and that people “don’t need to fall through the cracks when these things happen.”
McDonald’s trial took place Monday, April 30 again at the Hennepin County Government Center.