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FREE SPEECH ZONE | Free CeCe!: Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman's aggressive prosecution of CeCe McDonald
It has been almost a year since Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, a young Black transgender woman, was violently attacked in Minneapolis. But CeCe hasn't been able to return to her life as a college student and begin to heal from the trauma of this assault. Instead, she's in the Hennepin County Jail, facing two charges of second-degree murder.
In June of 2011, CeCe was attacked while walking to the grocery store with her friends. After a group of white bar patrons shouted slurs at CeCe and her friends—calling them “faggots,” “chicks with dicks,” and “n*****s”--a woman in the group smashed a glass into CeCe’s face, cutting through her cheek. A fight broke out and one of CeCe’s attackers died. The police arrived and singled out CeCe, who was seriously injured, for arrest. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged her with second-degree murder.
From jail, CeCe called a former social worker, who notified Katie Burgess, director of the Trans Youth Support Network. When Burgess learned that CeCe was being held in solitary confinement and denied adequate medical attention, she put out a call to pack the courtroom at CeCe's first hearing. As word spread about her case in the following months, community members began pressing Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman’s office to explain why he was prosecuting CeCe. In the months since CeCe's arrest, it has become clear that Freeman's prosecution of CeCe is cavalier. His office is primarily interested in racking up another successful prosecution, and CeCe is paying the price.
County Attorney Freeman suggests that he's just processing a case that landed on his desk. CeCe's supporters have received a standard response from Freeman's office: “Our job is to take the facts presented to us by the police investigators. We then determine if a crime has been committed that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, we charge the suspect. We have made that decision in this case, and now it will be up to a jury to make the final determination.” This paints a picture of county bureaucrats whose hands are tied. It makes Freeman out to be a powerless actor, not a major decision-maker.
But Freeman has a different story to tell when he's not dodging criticism from CeCe's supporters. In a recent news special, Freeman calls himself the “Michael Jordan” of prosecutors, boasting that Hennepin County has the lowest acquittal rate in Minnesota: only 9.7% of felony cases that go to trial end in acquittals. That doesn't include the 94.3% of felony cases in Hennepin County that end in plea agreements. This means that more than 99% of people who are charged with felonies in Hennepin County are convicted, in or out of court. Although Freeman tells the public that he's serving justice exceptionally well, in truth he's just highly efficient at railroading Minnesotans into prisons and jails. These statistics—combined with the fact that Minnesota has the nation's worst disparity in rates of incarceration between Black and white people—tell us that CeCe won't get justice in court.
Prosecutors with high conviction rates often “succeed” by pressuring defendants to take plea deals. Defendants fear what might happen if they exercise their right to go to trial, and with good reason (given, for example, Hennepin County's 90.3% conviction rate). Prosecutors frequently add new charges when defendants reject plea deals. This phenomenon is known as the “trial penalty,” and CeCe is all too familiar with it. After she rejected a plea deal in October 2011, she was slapped with a new charge: second degree murder with intent. This kind of prosecutor retaliation is common to discourage defendants from turning down plea agreements. As Michelle Alexander noted recently in the New York Times, if all defendants took their cases to trial, the legal system would collapse under the sheer volume of criminal cases.
There is nothing objective about Freeman's choice to prosecute CeCe. Several times in 2011 Freeman declined to press charges in cases that he deemed to be self-defense deaths.* Freeman is charging CeCe because he believes he can win: he knows the deck is stacked against her. In the eyes of the prosecution, the pressure that CeCe is under while she's in jail increases the chances that she'll take a plea deal: she's away from her family and support system, she's the only woman in a men's jail, and jail conditions for transgender people are notoriously abusive. The prosecution can assume that most potential jurors in a case like this will be white (given the multiracial, but majority white, makeup of Hennepin County). Moreover, prosecutors can bet that none of the jurors will be transgender, most don't know any transgender people, and some will hold be actively transphobic. CeCe will not face a jury of her peers.
CeCe's attackers have been protected from public scrutiny, while CeCe has been depicted as an aggressor who was looking for trouble on the night she was attacked. The truth is that CeCe was navigating a climate of danger that she, and most trans women of color, navigate daily. Trans women of color face disproportionate levels of violence, and transgender people are murdered at 16 times the rate of the general U.S. population.**
For daring to believe that her own life—her life as a student, a fashion designer, a sister, a young African American trans woman—was valuable enough to fight for, CeCe has spent almost a year in jail, and faces the possibility of many more years behind bars. By continuing to press charges against CeCe, Freeman sends a message to other trans women of color: if you break the rules that govern whose lives are valuable, you will be punished.
But Freeman's prosecution team didn't bargain for CeCe's leadership, charisma, and resilience, and the commitment and energy she would inspire in her supporters. CeCe has shown that she will not be intimidated into cooperating with conviction-hungry prosecutors. Freeman still has time to drop the charges before CeCe's trial begins on April 30th. It's in his best interest: he's contending with a growing circle of CeCe's supporters who won't let intimidation dictate which lives are worth living, whose lives are protected. In CeCe's words, “even with all these trials and tribulations we choose to live our lives, and to continue living them proudly with gumption, bravery, and love in our minds and hearts. I know I still have faith in people, and I am willing to make a change if they are willing as well.”
Support CeCe by signing the petition to Hennepin County Attorney Freeman and contacting his office. To get involved, visit the Free CeCe! Support Committee's website.
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© 2012 Kris Gebhard and Lex Horan