A Baltimore County grand jury handed down indictments Monday against two teenage girls on assault and hate crime charges for the April 18 beating of a transgender woman inside a McDonald’s restaurant in a Baltimore suburb.
The brutal beating of Chrissy Lee Polis, 22, drew international attention to the subject of anti-transgender violence when a McDonald’s employee used his cell phone to capture the attack on video and posted it online. The video went viral, pulling in hundreds of thousands of viewers in the U.S. and abroad.
The grand jury indicted Teonna Brown, 18, on first and second-degree assault and classified the offenses as hate crimes. Sources familiar with the case say a 15-year-old girl charged as a juvenile, whose identity has been withheld by authorities, faces the same charges in juvenile court.
The assault charges normally carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail for an adult. Under Maryland’s hate crimes law, which covers victims based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, a judge has the authority to “enhance” the penalty for an underlying charge by adding up to 10 additional years of incarceration to the sentence.
Brown has been charged as an adult.
Law enforcement observers say grand juries almost always follow the recommendation of prosecutors in deciding on charges for an indictment. In this case, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office handled the prosecution.
“Today the State’s Attorney for Baltimore County came to the only possible conclusion in deciding to try the assault on Chrissy Lee Polis as a hate crime,” said Lynne Bowman, interim executive director of the state LGBT group Equality Maryland.
“As the video shows, the violent attack was directly related to the fact that Ms. Polis is a transgender woman,” Bowman said. “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.”
Brown’s attorney told the Baltimore Sun his client would likely argue that she acted in self-defense, raising the possibility that she might invoke a trans-panic defense along the lines of defendants who use the so-called “gay panic defense” when charged in gay-bashing cases.
“[A]nything that happened, happened in self-defense,” attorney Timothy P. Knepp told the Sun. He added that Brown is “a well-mannered, thoughtful young lady and I firmly believe that when the case comes to trial, she’ll be found not-guilty,” the Sun reported.
The grand jury also indicted Brown on a charge of assaulting a McDonald’s customer and an employee who tried to help Polis during the attack.
The video taken by the employee shows the two teenagers punching and kicking Polis in the head and body as she curled up on the restaurant floor. One of the two attackers could be seen dragging Polis across the floor by the hair before resuming the beating.
A spokesperson for the State’s Attorney’s office said no one else would be charged in the incident. There was speculation shortly after the attack that authorities might charge the McDonald’s employee who made the video or one or more other employees who stood by without helping Polis.
Sources familiar with the State’s Attorney’s office said the Maryland criminal code doesn’t list as a crime a decision by a spectator not to step in to help a victim during an attack.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley released a statement Tuesday commending Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger for “using every available means to prosecute the heinous beating of Chrissy Lee Polis last month.”
O’Malley added, “Even with Maryland’s hate crimes’ law, it is clear that more must be done to protect the rights and dignity of transgendered people. In the struggle for justice and equality for all, I’m committed to working with the Maryland General Assembly during the next legislative sessin to increase awareness and provide even greater protections for transgendered people.”
O’Malley was referring to a transgender non-discrimination bill that passed in the Maryland House of Delegates earlier this year but died in the State Senate when that body voted to send it back to committee.
“As some have noted, out of this awful beating has come a moment to foster a deeper understanding and respect for the dignity of all persons,” the governor said in his statement. “We should not allow the moment to pass without greater action.”