Dean Spade, legal scholar and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, was in attendance today in Minneapolis at the CeCe McDonald trial. PrettyQueer was able to interview him hours after the announcement that she would be accepting the plea deal that will take her back to prison. Dean’s first-hand account is recorded below.
Tom Léger: Why don’t we start with what happened today in court.
Dean Spade: Yesterday was jury selection, and that hadn’t finished. They had only selected ten jurors by the end of yesterday. And then today, what was anticipated was that they would continue jury selection and begin the trial. I got here, along with the support team, at around 8:30 in the morning and we waited in the hallway.
I have never worked with any trans woman locked up who is in a women’s facility. Trans women are in men’s facilities all across the US facing enormous violence.
At about 11:30 or 11:45, they brought folks in and it was to do a plea deal. They did not continue jury selection. Basically what that means is that CeCe took the stand and her lawyer went through with her the facts of the evening she was attacked, and then the prosecutor and judge asked her a few questions and she pled guilty.
The plea deal is second degree manslaughter and a sentence of forty-one months. All of the time that she has served since last June will be counted, and also people here anticipate about one-third of the sentence will be given as “good time,” so she’ll probably serve about twenty-one months or twenty months.
PQ: Is that twenty months in addition to what she has already done?
DS: It is in addition, yes, so it would be twenty more months from now. And then when that is done, she will have twenty-one more months of some kind of probationary period.
This is going to have a huge impact on her life. She obviously is going to have a conviction on her record, and her schooling has been disrupted, and she’s been traumatized by this attack and prosecution. It is so awful. My understanding is that from the perspective of her attorneys this was a legal victory even though it is unjust because this is one of the lowest possible plea deals she could get.
It is obviously not a victory for justice, but one of the better legal options. Of course, there were a lot of mixed feelings and a lot of sadness in the courtroom.
PQ: It is so valuable to talk to you because you’re an attorney and you obviously have so much experience with this type of case unfortunately. Do you get the impression that this was because a lot of the motions the defense was putting forward were being denied? Do you think that the defense attorney was coming to the conclusion that there was a smaller and smaller chance of winning?
DS: What I have heard from the people who were here is that at some point, there was a plea deal offered that was not as good as this one and would have given CeCe more time in prison, so actually it seems like today the prosecution may have felt that the jurors who were picked were not going to be as favorable to the prosecution as they would have wanted.
So, this plea deal has less time as compared to other deals she was offered earlier. I was told the plea is manslaughter with negligence instead of malice–I don’t know the exact Minnesota laws that they are using. But it seems my impression was that perhaps the public pressure on the case, or the assessment of the jurors, caused the prosecutors to offer a plea deal with less time in prison than they had previously offered.
Reforms are actually just refining the essential racist purpose of the prisons.
Honestly, it was so disgusting watching her have to go through the whole scene again, in the questioning from the lawyers. They went through the whole scene–the racist and transphobic slurs being yelled at CeCe and her friends, the woman breaking the beer glass over CeCe’s face, CeCe running away and being chased by the person who later died.
They went through that man chasing her and how she turned around and got her scissors out to protect herself, and how he pulled her towards him, and was stabbed. I can only imagine how terrified CeCe must have been during this attack.
And the worst was when the judge told her something like, “You realize, that when you introduced a weapon into this, you endangered other lives.”
But, what would anyone do, much less, anyone who part of a group so often targeted by violence?
The judge was speaking to her in a very patronizing way, asking, “Do you freely take this plea deal, do you freely and voluntarily take it?” What does freely and voluntary mean in this system? What options does CeCe have in this system where she’s being caged for being a target of a racist and transphobic attack?
It was just horrifying.
PQ: There has been some concern about where she’ll be kept, either in a men’s prison or a woman’s prison, or in protective custody.
DS: She’s been in a men’s facility so far. I don’t think anyone is expecting that she wouldn’t be in a men’s prison in the future. I didn’t get the sense that people have much hope for her to be in a women’s facility, and I have never worked with any trans woman locked up who is in a women’s facility. Trans women are in men’s facilities all across the US facing enormous violence.
PQ: What about protective custody? Is there any talk about that on the ground. I think people are concerned about her safety in prison.
DS: I don’t know. I don’t know if she’ll be in protective custody, or whether she’ll want to be. In my experience, in some places, trans people are trying to get out of protective custody, because it can sometimes be even more dangerous. Protective custody can also be very punitive because in some systems you have more time in lock down, you have less access to recreational activities, to the yard, etc. So it’s not clear to me what CeCe will want. I do think that her support team will advocate for her in whatever she is facing. They are very dedicated and organized.