Suspect in McDonald's attack to face hate crime charge

Defense attorney says incident was "self-defense"

May 16, 2011|By Justin Fenton and Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The 18-year-old woman charged in an attack on a transgender woman at a Rosedale McDonald's, which was captured on video that went viral on the Internet, will face an additional hate crime charge after being indicted Monday by a Baltimore County grand jury.

Activists for the gay, lesbian and transgender community had expressed concern that hate crime charges weren't initially filed by police last month, after Chrissy Lee Polis said she was assaulted in an apparent dispute over her using a woman's restroom.

On Monday, the activists called the new count in the indictment against Teonna Brown appropriate and necessary. A hate crime charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, which could be added to the 25-year maximum for the assault charge Brown already faces.

Prosecutors "came to the only possible conclusion in deciding to try the assault on Chrissy Lee Polis as a hate crime," said Lynne Bowman, the interim executive director of Equality Maryland. "Lack of understanding or fear about someone who is transgender is never an excuse for violence, and when it occurs, it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Sandy Rawls, who founded Trans-United, a Baltimore-based group that fights transgender discrimination, praised the work of police and prosecutors in the case but said the charge is not reason to celebrate.

"It's a tragedy for everybody involved," Rawls said. "It's a tragedy for the community, it's a tragedy for Chrissy and it's a tragedy for those" charged in the beating.

Brown's attorney, Timothy P. Knepp, declined to discuss the case in detail but said "anything that happened, happened in self-defense."

Brown is "a well-mannered, thoughtful young lady, and I firmly believe that when this case comes to trial, she'll be found not guilty," Knepp said. He said hate crime charges "certainly do not apply in this case."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger declined to comment on the indictment because the case is pending. A 15-year-old suspect remains charged as a juvenile.

The video, recorded and apparently posted to the Internet by a McDonald's employee, showed Polis being repeatedly kicked and struck in the head, then dragged by her hair across the floor, eventually having an apparent seizure as onlookers laughed.

Even before Polis acknowledged her sexual orientation, the video had garnered millions of views and prompted outrage for the sheer brutality and apparent lack of compassion from those watching and recording.

But the case has since turned a spotlight on the plight of transgender people, with thousands signing petitions as well as holding rallies. One activist writing in London's Guardian newspaper called the McDonald's attack the transgender community's Stonewall — equating what happened in Baltimore County with the 1969 riot outside a Greenwich Village gay bar that catapulted the quest for homosexual rights from a fringe effort into a national movement.

Attempts to add greater protections for transgender people have foundered in the Maryland legislature. Last month, delegates rejected an anti-discrimination measure that would have prevented employers, creditors and housing providers from discriminating against transgender people. A clause dealing with discrimination in public accommodations, which would have included places such as restaurants, was stripped out of the proposed law even before it went to a vote.

Hate crimes happen "all the time" to transgender people in all kinds of situations, said Mara Kiesling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, based in Washington.

A recent survey showed nearly 40 percent of the transgender community has been harassed while in a retail store and that 2 percent of them had been physically assaulted while in a restaurant or hotel.

"We should be upset in our society when that happens to any kind of person, but the truth is it does happen to transgender people more than other kinds of people," Kiesling said. ""Polis was not by any means an isolated event."

Polis, 23, told The Baltimore Sun on April 24 that the altercation was prompted by her using the women's bathroom. She also said the women accused her of "talking to [her] man." She said in that interview that the attack was "definitely a hate crime."

She could not be reached for comment Monday, but her attorney, William H. "Billy" Murphy, said Shellenberger made the right decision to seek additional charges.

"There is, we think, ample evidence to support his decision that this should be a hate crime," Murphy said. "If we continue to tolerate at any level this kind of criminal act against the transgender or gay and lesbian community, we are treating them with contempt, and we are not affording them the same empathy and dignity that all citizens in this country are entitled to."

He declined to say whether Polis planned to file a civil suit, saying that the criminal prosecution was the "first order of business."

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