Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The CeCe McDonald story: was she fighting back or committing murder?

Self-Defense, a Cover-Up, of Homicide?

Once the deep laceration on her face was stitched up, CeCe McDonald met briefly with Sgt. John Holthusen and Sgt. Christopher Gaiters of the Minneapolis Police Department’s homicide unit. Three hours later, they saw her again for questioning; meanwhile, she says, she was not given the opportunity to make any calls.

Sgt. Gaiters confirmed that McDonald was neither drunk nor in too much pain to undergo the interrogation. The 18-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department says that McDonald understood the reading of her Miranda rights, that she waived her right to remain silent, and that she did not request an attorney. During later pretrial hearings, McDonald’s attorney, Hersch Izek, asserted that McDonald was in no condition to be questioned that night; Gaiters countered that McDonald had seemed competent and articulate, though her facial injuries made it hard for her to talk. Gaiters recalled that McDonald alternately laughed and cried during the interrogation, and that she acted out the alleged crime for the sergeants.

During her initial questioning, McDonald told cops that she’d pulled a pair of fabric scissors out of her purse to scare off Schmitz when he came at her after the fight had seemed to have cooled down; when he rushed her, he ran into the scissors, she said. According to this first scenario, McDonald did kill Schmitz, but accidentally, and in self-defense.

Later, though, McDonald would write to the Star Tribune and tell the newspaper that this confession was a panicked mistake, made as she loyally tried  to cover up for the unnamed friend who she says actually stabbed Schmitz. One of those present that night, McDonald’s boyfriend Larry Tyaries Thomas, would back her up on that theory. Thomas said that he tried to pull McDonald away from the argument when he saw that she was bleeding—and that, when he looked back, one of their friends was running from the scene. Thomas claimed that the friend later told them that he’d accidentally stabbed Schmitz when Schmitz fell on the blade he was carrying (the murder weapon has never been found). Another friend, Zavawn Smith, claimed to have recorded a video of this unidentified accidental killer’s confession on his cell phone.

But McDonald later reverted to the self-defense claim. Police, though, already had the theory that prosecutors would push. A witness told them that Schmitz had grabbed McDonald to pull her away from a woman during the fight, then backed away, saying “You stabbed me.” The witness alleged that McDonald replied, “Yes, I did.” Prosecutors didn’t think this scenario sounded like self-defense; they mounted a case against McDonald.

Solitary Confinement

Cece McDonald was charged with second-degree murder put in solitary confinement  after her interrogation.  Solitary is often used as punishment, and it can be psychologically harrowing; but authorities, insisting that it was for her own protection, overruled McDonald’s repeated requests to be returned to the general population. After a month, she was transferred to a male psychiatric unit. She spent another week in solitary in September. Authorities never acceded to her request to be housed with female prisoners.

McDonald and her supporters say that, despite complaining of headaches and ear and eye pain, she was refused medical treatment for an extended period. After two months, she saw a doctor for follow-up on the lacerated salivary gland; by then she reportedly had a golf-ball-sized swelling in her cheek.

The Legal Rights Center took her case. The nonprofit organization has offered free legal help to low-income clients since 1970. According to executive director Michael Friedman, the LRC strives to help change its clients lives, not just get them off their charges. They’ll only take on homicide cases like McDonald’s if the full staff agrees to support the potential client. Legal Rights Center unanimously agreed to take McDonald on, and Hersch Izek became her lawyer.

In September, Judge Daniel Moreno lowered McDonald’s bail from $150,000 to $75,000, and by October 4, 2011, McDonald’s supporters had raised the $7500 bond that released her to house arrest. But things quickly went downhill.

Prosecutors offered her McDonald a deal: Rather than face trial for second-degree murder, she could plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and serve just seven years in prison. She refused the plea bargain. And on October 6, days after her release to house arrest, prosecutors added a second charge of second-degree murder, this one “second-degree intentional murder.”  Each of these two charges could damn her to as much as 40 years in prison if she were found guilty in court. Friedman and the Legal Rights Center claimed that prosecutors were retaliating for McDonald’s refusal to take a plea.

Then, McDonald’s parole officer suspected her of tampering with her electronic monitoring bracelet (supporters contend that this may have been a mechanical error)—and she failed one of her drug screenings, testing positive for marijuana on December 29th. With a bench warrant issued for her arrest, she turned herself in on January 4, 2012.

Judge Moreno set a dauntingly steep bail: $500,000. McDonald’s trial was almost four months off, and she’d be in jail until then.

But media interest and public support were mounting.

Community Support

CeCe support flyer. Source:

Interest in the homicide case against CeCe McDonald made a slow start. Local papers initially focused on the victim, Dean Schmitz , and when the accused first came into view, the transgender woman confused the press.

For example, a June 7, 2011 City Pages article referred to Chrishaun McDonald as a 23-year-old man. (Many sources would continue to refer to McDonald as “Chrishaun” rather than “CeCe”. While “CeCe” was the name she used, “Chrishaun” was her birthname and remained her legal name.) By June 14, City Pages was just clear enough in its grasp of the situation to describe McDonald with this confusing sentence: “Although 23-year-old McDonald is being charged as a man, he’s transgender.” Early Star Tribune articles carefully avoided choosing a pronoun and making a gender decision,  instead repeatedly referring to McDonald as “a person in transition from a man to a woman”; a later Star Tribune article specifically noting that McDonald undergoes female hormone treatments still used the pronoun “he.”

The Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition and the Minneapolis-based Trans Youth Support Network came to McDonald’s defense. The organizations’ representatives—most visibly, Trans Youth Support Network’s Katie Burgess—made themselves available in interviews with both the mainstream and gay- or –transgender-oriented press, clarifying McDonald’s situation and frequently citing the high rates of assault on transgender youth, both on the streets and in jail. And they galvanized support for McDonald around the US.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s family and friends reported that they were being harassed by people connected with Dean Schmitz. They recounted threatening phone calls, and said that people they recognized from the Schooner Tavern had thrown bottles at them from a car, yelling at them to “go back to Africa.”

On April 19, 2012, McDonald’s supporters delivered a 15,000-signature petition to Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, asking that he recognize that McDonald acted in self-defense and drop the charges. Among McDonald’s supporters were Leslie Feinberg (author of seminal transgender memoir Stone Butch Blues), Kate Bornstein (Gender Outlaw and Queer and Pleasant Danger), Minnie Bruce Pratt (S/he), and Dean Spade (of Seattle University Law School and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project), Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon and Minnesota State Representatives Susan Allen and Karen Clark.

McDonald’s supporters in the Trans Youth Support Network also planned a dance party in front of Freeman’s office on April 26. But Freeman wasn’t changing his mind; as he saw it, McDonald had simply killed a man, and her trial was set for April 30, 2012.

Freeman continued to maintain that it wasn’t self defense. Schmitz wasn’t the one who’d hit McDonald with the glass, he pointed out. And nothing stopped McDonald from running away from the scene at any time.

A Decision

CeCe McDonald prison photo. Source:

Pretrial hearings in April 2012 culminated in some rulings that crippled CeCe McDonald’s defense. Judge Moreno ruled that the defense couldn’t present Dean Schmitz’s swastika tattoo in the proceedings—McDonald couldn’t see it, he said, so it wasn’t relevant to that night’s events. Moreno also indicated that he’d permit an academic as an expert witness but not an activist—the defense had to drop their plan to have Rebecca Wagner testify, and they settled instead on the University of Minnesota’s Cesar Gonzalez. Even then, Judge Moreno ruled, the expert witness could testify only regarding the definition of the word “transgender”, but not about, for example, the high incidence of hate crimes against transgendered persons—something that  defense claimed contributed to an atmosphere that led McDonald to fear for her life.

Furthermore, Judge Moreno banned any reference to Dean Schmitz’s record of violence against even people in his own family. The prosecution, however, was free to cite an old bounced check of McDonald’s as evidence of her unreliability that could negate her own testimony.

In the end it didn’t matter. Prosecutors presented a second, more generous plea deal, and the Legal Rights Center team encouraged McDonald to accept a second-degree manslaughter plea.

She had a choice: Do you keep fighting, insist you acted in self-defense, put your family through a trial, and risk 40 years in prison? Or do you step back, give in, and accept an expected 41 months?

CeCe McDonald took the plea (the transcript can be read here.) To do so she had to concede that she’d acted unreasonably in using scissors as a dangerous weapon against an unarmed man, and give up claims of self-defense or accidental harm.

Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project has estimated that, with time served and good behavior, CeCe McDonald may have as little as 20 months left to serve. But the second-degree homicide will follow her the rest of her life

On June 4, 2012, Judge Moreno handed down the expected 41-month sentence. McDonald received credit for the 275 days she spent in jail, but not the three months she spent under home monitoring. She is currently inmate 238072 at Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, a men’s prison.

Sources on Following Page.

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