Fighting For Her Life: Transgender Woman Charged With Murder

One night in front of a Minneapolis bar has changed CeCe McDonald's life forever.



Sadly, for McDonald, a trans woman of color, the verbal harassment was nothing new, but this time she decided to stand up for herself. The group stopped, and McDonald told the trio that she wouldn’t stand for their racist and transphobic attacks. Soon one woman reportedly yelled, “I’ll take you on, bitch” and hit McDonald in the side of the face with a glass beer mug, lacerating her salivary gland and slicing her cheek through to the interior of her mouth.

What happened next is murky still. What cops might call a bar fight ensued, with several more people joining in the melee. At the end, McDonald was lying in a pool of her own blood, Schmitz in a pool of his blood. The father of four had lost too much blood to survive.

The 47-year-old Schmitz had been stabbed with a pair of fabric scissors that McDonald had her in purse. Confused and frightened, McDonald first allegedly told police Schmitz had run into her scissors as she was fighting back from the all-out assault on her, an act of protection that came with the ultimate cost. Later she said it was a friend of hers who used the scissors to protect her. It’s not clear if CeCe McDonald is sure exactly what happened, but she does know one thing: She isn’t guilty of second-degree murder.

Schmitz died before EMTs arrived. When police arrived, they arrested McDonald and no one else. After she received 11 stitches in her face and waited three hours, the police interrogated her without counsel. After she signed a confession, she almost immediately recanted, says Billy Navarro Jr., cofounder of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition's Shot Clinic/Syringe Exchange, and a leader of the Free CeCe Campaign, something McDonald’s attorney will be reminding jurors later this month, no doubt.

After her arrest, McDonald was placed in solitary confinement in the local jail, something that’s common for incarcerated transgender women but no less harrowing because of that. McDonald says she asked frequently to be put into general housing with other prisoners — after all, life in “the hole” is terrifying and lonely — but Hennepin County jail officials kept her in the hole for a month “for her protection.” Eventually she was transferred to a male psychiatric unit in a local facility and two months into her incarceration she was finally taken back to a doctor to check up on the wound she suffered in the Schooner Tavern attack, which by then, says Navarro, “had turned into a painful, golf ball-sized lump.”

Several blogs and Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon later reported that the Hennepin county medical examiner found a Nazi swastika tattoo on Schmitz’s chest (the report is not online) and his brother, Charles Pelfrey, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that hate speech–type language coming from his brother wasn’t a surprise. “At times he can be like that, yes,” Pelfrey said. “It depends on his mood, unfortunately.”

But still, prosecutor Michael Freeman has refused to drop the charges.

The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently conducted an extensive nationwide survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals to evaluate the frequency and intensity of discrimination they face. What they found is shocking but bears weight on the case against CeCe McDonald: 38% of African-American respondents experienced police harassment, 15% reported being physically assaulted by the police, and 7% reported being sexually assaulted by the police; 38% of African American MTF (male-to-female) respondents reported being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or a staff member in jail/prison; 41% of African-American respondents reported being imprisoned because of their race and gender identity alone; a whopping 47% reported having been in jail or prison for any reason.

What some of those statistics boil down to is that nearly half of the respondents (46%) were uncomfortable seeking police assistance, and transgender people — perhaps because they are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty — are 10 to 15 times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their life.

McDonald, whose pretrial court date is April 24, and her first trial date April 30, was initially charged with second-degree murder without intent. After she refused a plea agreement, on October 6, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office added an additional charge of second-degree murder with intent; one dead man, two murder charges, each of which can land her 40 years in Minnesota state prison.