Minnesota trans woman CeCe McDonald, imprisoned for second-degree manslaughter in what some activists believe was a case of self-defense, will be released January 13, just 19 months into her 41-month sentence.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections recently updated its website to reflect the January 13 release date for McDonald. In May of 2012, McDonald reached an agreement with prosecutors wherein she would plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of Dean Schmitz on the night of June 5, 2011. A month later, she was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
The facts of the case remain murky, but according to testimony, McDonald, who is African-American, and four of her friends were walking to a grocery store in Minneapolis during the early morning hours of June 5, 2011, when they were confronted by a group of white people, one of whom was Schmitz, outside the Schooner Tavern. Schmitz’s group began shouting racist and transphobic slurs at McDonald's party, with events eventually escalating to a physical altercation that left McDonald injured and Schmitz dead of a stab wound to the chest.
Though many believe McDonald was acting in self-defense, the prosecution labeled her actions that night criminal in nature. On April 15, 2012, transgender author and activist Kate Bornstein appeared on Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC show to speak up for McDonald, drawing contrasts between the relentless prosecution McDonald faced and the fact that George Zimmerman had only been charged days earlier in the February 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Many others voiced support for McDonald, with some going so far as to label her the victim. Among them was Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon, who referred to the incident as "another example of transgender women of color being targeted for hate and bias-related violence."
In a May 2013 entry on McDonald’s blog, she described her current predicament and how she got there.
Currently, I am in a men’s state prison for the death of someone I accidentally stabbed in the act of defending myself. It all started around 12 am on June 4th, 2011 when a group of racist drunks began to verbally bash my friends and I on our way to a local 24-hour grocery store. After being called everything from faggots to niggers, tempers escalated and I was caught in between the madness. A woman from the other group decided to throw her alcoholic cocktail in my face, and to add insult to injury, she smashed her glass cup in my face which lacerated my cheek and was deep enough to cut a saliva gland which caused painful complications later on after getting 12 stitches. When the police arrived it wasn’t hard to for them to assume who the aggressors were — surely, for them, it had to have been the group of black kids who started all this drama. At least that was the feeling I was receiving by the way they were treating me and my friends. And instead of taking me directly to the ambulance, they made me sit in the back of a squad car in handcuffs while bleeding badly and in very bad pain.
Since being charged, McDonald has become something of a folk hero among transgender activists. Many view her as a victim of circumstance, as someone guilty only of self-defense, as someone denied justice by the very system charged with providing it.
Laverne Cox, herself an African-American trans woman and the breakout star of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, is producing a documentary about McDonald’s life, titled Free CeCe! It is currently in production and is scheduled to be released sometime in 2014.
On OITNB, Cox portrays Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate in a women’s prison. Unlike the fictional Burset, McDonald has been forced to serve her sentence in a men’s prison. That’s a familiar scenario for trans women, 21 percent of whom have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Often these women are subjected to assault, frequently as a result of their transgender status, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.