Equal Under The Law?

One of the supposed cornerstones of democracies is that we are all equal under the law. Rich people, of course, always have means of avoiding consequences, but once you end up in front of The Beak (that’s a judge, non-UK readers) you expect to be treated fairly. Well, some of you do.

You’ve doubtless all heard of the case of Trayvon Martin who was gunned down in Florida earlier this year. His killer, George Zimmerman, claimed that Martin had attacked him and he had acted in self-defense. Martin was armed with a hoodie, some iced tea and a packet of fruit candy. The local authorities initially declined to take any action against Zimmerman. Florida is one of the parts of the US that has a “Stand Your Ground” law that protects people acting in self defense.

As a comparison, consider the case of trans woman CeCe McDonald. Last year she and some friends, all African-American but not all trans, went out to buy groceries in Minneapolis. As they passed a bar a gang of white people began yelling transphobic abuse at them and attacked them. CeCe had a glass smashed in her face which cut her cheek. The group ran, and were chased down the street by their assailants. At some point, CeCe decided that enough was enough. She took a pair of scissors out of her bag and stopped. Dean Schmitz charged at her, was impaled on the scissors, and later died.

The reaction of the Minneapolis authorities was very different to that in Florida. CeCe was arrested and charged with murder. Yesterday she accepted a plea bargain for a charge of manslaughter that carries a custodial sentence of 41 months. Well, she did kill someone while trying to defend herself, and Minnesota does not have a Florida-style Stand Your Ground law. But it is the way the trial was conducted that shows how the justice system can be perverted.

Firstly it is entirely legal in Minnesota to remove someone from a jury because they are LGBT. The assumption is that such people would be biased against decent, upstanding citizens, and in favor of, well, people like themselves. So CeCe would be facing a jury comprised entirely of straight cis people. Then there’s the matter of what evidence would be presented. Judges, at least in Minnesota, have quite a lot of leeway in defining what they deem relevant to a case. CeCe had a previous conviction for passing a bad check, and the prosecution was planning to mention that as evidence of her criminal nature. Schmitz had three previous convictions for assault. They were all domestic abuse cases. He had attacked his ex-girlfriend, her father, and her 14-year-old daughter. He had a swastika tattooed on his chest. He judge refused to allow any of this to be mentioned in court. He also refused testimony from an expert on the dangers faced by local trans people. Some of Schmitz’s friends, who would be standing as witnesses, had convictions for theft. Again the judge refused to allow this to be mentioned.

There’s a lot more in this article at Bilerico, but the basic fact is that CeCe could either accept 41 months in jail, or go to trial on a murder case that was clearly being stacked against her by the judge, and expect a 40-year sentence.

You might ask why she chose to defend herself. Wasn’t that a little unwise? Well, here’s what happens to trans people who don’t defend themselves. On Sunday night Brandy Martell and two friends were sat chatting in Brandy’s car in Oakland. Two men came up and talked to them. The fact that the women were trans was mentioned. The men went away. Some time later they came back with an automatic weapon and opened fire. The two other women got away, but Brandy died from gunshot wounds.

It took until yesterday (Wednesday) for the San Francisco Chronicle to run an article on the murder. Kudos to Laura Anthony of ABC News who appears to have been the only local journalist from a major outlet to cover the story the day after the murder. As the Daily Kos put it, “Transgender Woman Murdered in Oakland. Nobody Cares”.

One thing we can conclude, of course, is that Brandy and her friends were not prostitutes. It would have been all over the media had there been any evidence of that. In fact Brandy worked as a peer advocate at the TransVision center in Fremont, the Bay Area city where Kevin and I had our home. I wasn’t much involved with the local trans scene when I lived there, but had I been I would have met Brandy, possibly known her as a friend.

Well, you may say, that’s America, and Oakland at that. And it is true that people don’t wander around the streets with automatic weapons in every country. But don’t assume that the sort of official manipulation of the justice system that happened to CeCe can’t happen anywhere else.

Felix Wamala is a gay man from Uganda who is seeking to stay in the UK, where he has lived since 1995. He has been in detention since 2010 when his request for asylum was “lost” by the Home Office. Uganda is a country where instituting the death penalty for homosexuality has been seriously discussed in parliament recently. The British authorities have already tired to deport Felix twice, once on December 24th and once on January 2nd. I’m not sure why the previous attempts failed, but there have been cases of pilots refusing to accept such deportees onto their planes on humanitarian grounds. Another attempt to deport him will be made tomorrow. Note that all of these actions have been timed for holiday weekends.

Felix has been trying to get his case reviewed. A post on the LGBT History month blog explains what happened.

But there are further signs that Felix has been strait-jacketed in terms of his appeal. First, he cannot challenge the Judicial Review of the 22nd of March because he has not been provided with the deportation order on paper that he needs to appeal against. Second, a 14 year rule application that he made on the grounds that he has lived here for over 14 years, and which he sent to the Home Office with the correct funds was returned month ago with the funds returned. It was then refused on the grounds that he had not provided “sufficient funds” to secure the application!

The Borders Agency has also said that they can’t grant him asylum because he can’t prove to their satisfaction that he is gay. One wonders how he is supposed to do that. So much for fair treatment under the law.

If you are white and a UK citizen things are probably a bit different, but even so I’m not inclined to take chances. My sole brush with the courts was almost 20 years ago, and thankfully it wasn’t anything that might have resulted in a criminal conviction. Nevertheless, like CeCe I quietly took whatever the judge chose to throw at me. I well remember my lawyer saying, “There’s no justice in British courts for people like you.” Since then we have had the Gender Recognition Act, so hopefully things are better, but I’m not going to assume that.

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One Response to Equal Under The Law?

  1. twilight2000 says:

    I understand the white cis privilege I have, but this sort of thing (Ce Ce) should have been a relatively simple “self defense” case – and any lawyer worth her/his salt would appeal the hell out of any conviction of any person being chased by a gang being thrown in jail for murder.

    I also understand (if only conceptually) the reason to accept what’s thrown at you for fear of it being so much worse if you don’t.

    This is the sort of case that major legal names will pick up pro bono if properly approached – because it’s so flagrant. I hope she’s open to that – jail will be a nightmare for her with their gender-based institutionalism and no one should have to live through that.