CeCe McDonald, a black transwoman in Minnesota who killed a man in self-defense last year, had her trial today, and took a plea deal. This brings her charges down from two counts of second degree murder with a sentence of twenty five years to life, to a single count of second-degree manslaughter and a sentence of forty-one months (almost three and a half years).
I’ve seen a lot of people rightly upset about the terms of the deal, but not really questioning why Ms. CeCe would decide to take the deal, when the case against her seems transparently motivated by bias. On the one hand, it’s generally good practice not to question or criticize the legal decisions of prisoners; it’s a difficult spot to be in, and it’s not our job as onlookers to play peanut gallery when we could be lending support. But on the other hand, I think we should question the process- if the state doesn’t think it can win a case, why does it start court procedings? And if it does that, but then offers a deal, why do people decline their right to jury trial?
Obviously, the answers vary by case and by prisoner, and I don’t have the desire or authority to talk about the individual reasons people have. I haven’t had any contact with CeCe McDonald, and I don’t have any special insight into her decision. But I do want to talk about plea bargains, why the state needs them, and how they ensure that they’re taken.
A brief note on what a plea deal is: a plea deal is when you’re offered the choice between going to trial and pleading either ‘not guilty’ or ‘no contest’, or pleading guilty to a lesser charge (or the same charge with a more lenient punishment) and being convicted. Taking a plea deal means that you are convicted without going to trial.
That detail is important, because the American legal system takes on more cases each year than it can actually try. If everyone being tried for a crime in this country demanded a jury trial, as is their right, the courts would be literally unable to handle the volume, back up, and crash. Plea deals are designed to prevent people from going to trial.
So the court system has a vested interest in reducing the amount of trials, which has the side effect of eliminating the fact checking and proving of guilt that courts are supposed to provide. But how do you get someone to decline a trial, especially if they think that they could win it?
You do basically what Minnesota did to CeCe McDonald.
CeCe was jailed last June, and her bail was set at half a million dollars. That means that, even if she were able to find a bail bondsman willing to bond her out (ie, use his name to guarentee that she’d show up to court, with the understanding that she would owe him the full $500,000 if she didn’t), she would have had to pay at least $50,000 dollars, if the bondsman was willing to do a standard rate of 10%- which he may not have been, considering the murder charges. So she remained in jail until her trial, eleven months later.
In jail, CeCe was kept in solitary confinement, apparently in the male side of a sex-segregated facility. Officials said that this was for her protection- and it probably was, since the jail she was kept in didn’t have facilities for transgender prisoners, and they couldn’t guarantee her protection from the other inmates. Jail is dangerous for everyone, but especially for queer people, and especially for trans people- and they’re made more dangerous by the continual overcrowding that happens when you set high bails. Whatever the particular justification, CeCe was kept in solitary.
I’m not privy to exactly what kind of solitary- how often she got visitors, what kind of human interaction she had, if the guards socialized with her- but I’m inclined to think it doesn’t matter. Advocates for prisoners have been decrying solitary confinement as psychological torture for a long time, and the case for that classification is clear.
My point is that her jail experience leading up to the trial was probably exhausting, stressful, lonely, and scary. She wasn’t allowed to receive packages, except for books and magazines mailed directly from the publisher. She could have letters, but only after jail officials read them. She didn’t have the comfort of her own things or the safety of her own space, because she couldn’t pay the enormously high bail.
If I were in that situation, and after almost a year I was allowed to go to trial, it would have been hard to think of the chances getting off, when the possibility of a conviction meant that that loneliness and stress and fear might continue forever. If I was offered a definite three years, but no longer, I’d probably take it. I don’t know if this is why CeCe and her legal team decided to take the plea, but I’ll bet the prosecutor meant for it to be.
And that’s how the criminal justice system wears people down, and gets them to take pleas. Our court system is built to convict, and our jail system just facilitates that. It uses jail and pretrial measures to coerce people into taking pleas.
CeCe McDonald isn’t the victim of a mistake or an isolated incident of bigotry- the entire system was built like this, to grind people up, whether they did anything wrong or not. Once you’re in the system, they want to keep you there- and the only difference between being sucked into the system and being passed over is the particular judgment and prejudice of the police who arrive on scene.
CeCe has a prison support team, and their website provides instructions on how to help.