CeCe McDonald was the victim of a hate crime, a broken justice system, and a transphobic, violent prison complex. After serving 19 months in a men’s prison, Ms. McDonald was set free today. While we celebrate her release and are happy to see she is no longer behind bars, we question the system that put her there.
Walking past a tavern with a few of her friends on a late night in Minneapolis, Ms. McDonald and her friends encountered a group of at least four people that started harassing them. They called Ms. McDonald and her friends “niggers”, “faggots” and several other transphobic slurs. Ms. McDonald and her friends tried to ignore them and just walk away, but one of the women smashed a glass in Ms. McDonald’s face, slicing her cheek open. When Ms. McDonald tried to leave the scene of the brawl, one of the men followed her. Ms. McDonald pulled a pair of scissors from her purse, turned to face the man, during the struggle the man was stabbed in the chest and died on the scene.
Ms. McDonald was arrested that night. She was charged with first-degree murder, a crime that potentially carries a 40-year sentence. She refused to plead guilty. Later, the prosecution offered to reduce the charge to second-degree manslaughter, which carried a maximum sentence of only 10 years, if Ms. McDonald pled guilty. Ms. McDonald took the plea.
Ms. McDonald’s actions are easily understood, particularly in the context of the prevalence of anti-transgender violence:
- Transgender people, and particularly transgender women of color, almost universally report experiences of violence and harassment because of their gender identity or gender presentation. In one study, over 80% of transgender people reported experiences of verbal abuse. Over 30% reported physical abuse.
- In 2011, the year Ms. McDonald was attacked, at least 265 transgender people were murdered. At least 13 of those deaths took place in the United States.
- Getting help from the police, even when possible, does not always feel like a safe option. 38% of Black transgender and gender non-conforming people report harassment in interactions with the police. 51% report discomfort with seeking police assistance.
Once Ms. McDonald was arrested, she became part of our nation’s broken justice system. As a transgender person and a person of color, she had a difficult life but now it has become much more difficult. She maintained her innocence when the prosecution charged her with first-degree murder. When the prosecution offered to reduce her charge to second-degree manslaughter, Ms. McDonald accepted the plea. Given the choices, most people would have accepted the plea. Over 95 % of cases settle in plea bargains. There are no guarantees at the end of a trial and it is a time consuming and costly process.
Ms. McDonald was sentenced to 41 months, the minimum guidelines sentence for a plea of guilty to a charge of second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota. Judges do have discretion to give a below-guidelines sentence, but use of that discretion is rare. Still, in Ms. McDonald’s case it would have been appropriate. Ms. McDonald’s sentencing hearing included statements from community leaders, clergy, and Ms. McDonald’s family attesting to her character and expressing concern for her safety if she was placed in a men’s prison.
Those concerns are well-founded. Of transgender people who have been in prison:
- 16% report being physically assaulted
- 15% report being sexually assaulted
- For Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people in prison the statistics are much worse: 29% report being physically assaulted and 32% report being sexually assaulted
Ms. McDonald should not have had to live through the harassment in the first place. She should not have had to go to jail, and should not be faced with such a high risk of assault. Unfortunately, she will have to live with the aftermath of being incarcerated as a transgender person of color and what that will do to her life. This will impact her ability to be employed and how she is perceived by of society for the rest of her life.
We celebrate Ms. McDonald’s release, and continue to work to relieve the sorts of disparities that caused her incarceration.