While Zimmerman Walks, CeCe McDonald Is Still In Jail For Self-Defense


Since the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial was pronounced, communities throughout America, including our own virtual community of Millennials on PolicyMic, have been pondering, debating, and protesting about a broad range of relevant issues: racism, gun violence, self-defense laws, courtroom procedure, the list goes on. Yet there is another case that people of all political persuasions should look at. The case of CeCe McDonald will help people to understand why a lot of the anger surrounding Trayvon Martin's death was justified, even if there are reasonable doubts regarding Zimmerman's guilt. It also shows that a solution will not be simple. No single legislative bill can serve as the silver bullet that prevents future tragedies or injustices.

In 2011, CeCe McDonald, a 23-year-old black transgender woman, was walking with friends to buy groceries. She passed by a tavern, and Dean Schmitz, a white man in his 40s, and his friends started catcalling and insulting McDonald with racial and transphobic slurs. The conflict escalated, and Schmitz's ex-girlfriend attacked McDonald's face with a glass, injuring her.

What happened next is up for debate. According to most accounts, a flight began among several people, and Schmitz attempted to hit or assault McDonald. In response, she pulled out a pair of scissors and stabbed him to death. Despite her plausible claim of self-defense, McDonald was arrested on the same day, and charged with murder.

She eventually took a plea deal, and was sentenced to 41 months for manslaughter. We will never know what would have happened if her case had gone to trial, as Zimmerman's did. But one thing is certain: the way she was treated by law enforcement contrasts sharply with how Zimmerman was treated. There is overt inequity here.

After Martin was killed, the local police neither arrested nor charged Zimmerman, letting him go after five hours of questioning. Officers took Zimmerman's words at face value, even after finding out he had been arrested before for domestic abuse and assaulting a cop. If public pressure had not compelled authorities in Florida to apprehend Zimmerman, the killing might have been forgotten already. McDonald is not known to have had any prior history of violent crimes, but she did not receive the generous benefit of the doubt granted to Zimmerman, and was immediately prosecuted.

Zimmerman's father is a retired magistrate who served in the armed forces. The young Zimmerman once wanted to become a business executive. In other words, he was likely a member of the mainstream upper-middle class, and considered respectable by societal standards. McDonald, as a person of color and a member of the LGBT community, was not as lucky, as our society still frequently discriminates against individuals like her. The police and the court system throughout our country practice two-tiered justice; one tier is for social groups that are powerful and advantaged, like Zimmerman's, and the other is for those without privilege.

The profiles of the individuals who died are also worth looking at. Dean Schmitz had an extensive history of criminal convictions involving violence, but was known by people close to him as a family man and a loving father. Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, had no criminal record, despite the media's focus on his youthful indiscretions. On the day of Martin's death, the police checked his criminal background instead of Zimmerman's, which is unheard of. Of course, neither Martin nor Schmitz should have had their life cut short, but the justice system has demonstrated that it arbitrarily values some lives over others. The message is that when a white, middle-aged family man is killed, the killer must be held accountable immediately, no matter if it was in self-defense, or because of a vicious hate crime. Meanwhile, the slaughter of a black teenager should be brushed aside, and any of the teen's minor faults excuse leaving the case on the back burner of the justice system.

The kind of inequality illustrated here goes beyond racial inequality, as class, age, sexual orientation, and lifestyle are all be involved and intertwined. The unequal application of self-defense laws is not only unethical, but also encourages crime, as some people can initiate violence knowing that those on the receiving end will be deterred from defending themselves. Think about a schoolyard where the bullied individual is severely punished whenever he or she fights back, while the bully can trot out spurious claims of self-defense whenever he or she is caught.

Tightening or loosening criteria for self-defense and changing gun laws will not solve the problem, since law enforcement agencies can always apply laws stringently with one group, while turning a blind eye toward the other. Judge Learned Hand famously said, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it." If we replace the word "liberty" with "equality" it would still be accurate.

Even so, there are a few things that can help mitigate the inequality in how self-defense claims are handled by our justice system. One is increasing transparency in law enforcement, so glaring wrongs can be quickly discovered by the public. If the public did not find out about the two cases, there may have been even worse outcomes, with Zimmerman never charged, and McDonald languishing in prison for decades after not receiving a plea deal. Needless to say, this solution requires a public conscience. A second change would be clarification of the laws currently on the books, eliminating ambiguity. Although Florida's Stand Your Ground law was not used in the Zimmerman trial itself, it is an example of an ambiguous statute that can easily be abused by the powerful against the powerless. When there is more room for interpretation, the side that can afford better lawyers prevails. Even a law mandating an involuntary manslaughter charge, and only that charge, for all killings with murky circumstances or where self-defense was involved, would be better than the current patchwork of laws on this matter.