Cece McDonald, Trayvon Martin, and our unjust system


If it were me, I would have taken the plea bargain too. Facing a sentence of 40 years, Crishaun “CeCe” McDonald pled guilty to manslaughter, containing a sentence of about three and a half years. Three years is a long time, but it’s not a lifetime, and if I can imagine for a moment that I was her, I would have done the same thing, even if I was innocent. I wouldn’t have gambled on the chance that the jury would see the truth and find me not guilty, because 40 years compared to 41 months is too much to risk.

But I’m not CeCe. And any attempt that I might have to imagine her thought process is just an intellectual exercise, one that doesn’t acknowledge the privilege that I enjoy as a white gender-normative woman. Cece McDonald is an African-American, transgender woman, facing a court system that has, in study after study, been shown to result in racial disparities in arrests, convictions and sentencing. In addition, she faces a society where prejudice and prejudiced violence against transgender persons is widespread and widely tolerated. On top of that, if it were me, I could reasonably expect to be tried in front of a jury of my peers, including people who looked like me and had similar life experiences, whereas for McDonald, that jury of her peers was not going to happen.

According to her supporters’ website, McDonald and her friends (all African American) had been called racist and transphobic slurs by the victim, Dean Schmitz, and his friends. Schmitz’s friend, Molly Flaherty, had smashed a glass across McDonald’s face, and there was a fight, according to their website. If having a glass smashed on your head isn’t a reason for feeling threatened, I don’t know what is. 

McDonald’s case has reminded me in a number of ways of the Trayvon Martin murder.  Though clearly they are different situations, race looms as a huge factor in both cases. So does the question of what it means to defend yourself.

Martin was a young African American teenager, while McDonald is a young, African American transgender woman. George Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in self-defense. Before she took the plea deal, McDonald’s case was also based on a claim of self-defense.

Zimmerman was not arrested immediately for Martin’s murder — it took six weeks for him to be charged with a crime.  Part of the delay in Zimmerman’s arrest probably had to do with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which apparently makes it legal to kill someone if you are feeling “threatened.”

Minnesota doesn’t have a stand your ground law: if it did, McDonald would have a much better case. This begs the question: should we? The McDonald case is definitely an example that would aid the pro-stand your ground law argument. Here was a person who was threatened, not just verbally, but physically. Hospital records showed she had glass wedged in her face.

We don’t have a stand your ground law, and I don’t think we should. No one should have the right to take another person’s life unless it is the only remaining option to preserve their own.

McDonald could have had a viable self-defense claim, but we’ll never know all of the facts, in part because the trial never occurred. Her self defense claim was thwarted by a number of the judge’s rulings before the trial. For example,  the judge ruled that no mention of Dean Schmitz’s swastika tattoo on his chest could be made in court, nor could his criminal record be described. Why the judge felt this to be irrelevant does not make sense to me. 

There’s another similarity between Cece McDonald’s case and Trayvon Martin’s. Both are African American. And while one is an alleged killer and the other a victim of a killing, they both remain victims of a justice system that is stacked against them.