Teen gets five years for attack on transgender woman at McDonald's

After a teenage girl was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison for beating a transgender woman at a McDonald's in Rosedale, some advocates for transgender people called the sentence too lenient.

"The whole incident is unfortunate and demonstrates the lack of knowledge and understanding, and discrimination against transgender people," said Patrick Wojahn, board president of the Equality Maryland Foundation. "If anything, five years may have been too short of an amount of time for the attack and the amount of hatred that was shown in the incident."

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk agreed. "Five years is not enough for what she did. It was really horrible — nobody should do something like that to another human being," said Pena-Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. She proposed legislation to prevent employers, creditors and others from discriminating against transgender people, but the measure failed in the 2011 General Assembly.

Teonna Monae Brown, 19, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree assault and a hate crime in the beating of Chrissy Lee Polis, 22. The April attack drew national attention after a video went viral online, and it became a rallying point for transgender-rights advocates.

Brown, who tearfully apologized in court Tuesday, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with five years suspended, plus three years of supervised probation, as prosecutors sought. The maximum sentence for the crimes is 35 years.

Vincent Paolo Villano, a spokesman for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the group's focus is not Brown's sentence, but the hope that "people use this as an opportunity to educate other people." The point, he said, is that "everyone is treated fairly and equally."

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II called Brown's attack on Polis "absolutely outrageous behavior" and said the prosecutors' sentencing recommendation was "more than reasonable."

After the sentencing, Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said that "it was very important that even though this defendant has no criminal record, that she receive substantial time in jail." He said the violence of the repeated assaults warranted it.

"I don't care who the victim is. This was not a political statement," he said.

Shellenberger said surveillance video from the McDonald's in eastern Baltimore County showed that Polis was not bothering Brown and the other teen charged in the attack. Police learned that Polis went into an empty women's bathroom and was attacked as she came out, after the teens had complained to a McDonald's employee that a man went into the ladies' room, he said.

"This is the harshest penalty I have ever seen handed down to an 18-year-old first-time offender in a case of assault," Timothy Knepp, Brown's lawyer, said later. He called the case "a tragic set of circumstances that was really overblown by the state's attorney's office."

In court, Brown asked for a second chance and apologized for the attack.

"My mother didn't raise me like this," Brown said before her lawyer asked the judge for probation only. "I would really like to apologize to the victim."

Assistant State's Attorney Rachel Cogen said Polis was too upset to come to court.

In an emotional statement submitted to the court, Polis wrote that she did not forgive Brown and her 14-year-old companion for the attack. She described a demeaning attack in which Brown and the younger girl spat on her, called her names, kicked her and pulled out her hair.

"While being beaten, I felt like I was going to die that day," Polis wrote. After the beatings, her epileptic seizures, which had stopped for a year, started again and became more frequent, she added.

She has suffered emotional damage as well, Polis wrote.

"My private life has been exposed to the world. I lost my job. I cannot go anywhere without the fear of getting hurt again," Polis wrote. "I want to go into a hole and hide."

Polis wrote that she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from sleep problems, anguish, fear of being alone, bouts of crying and anxiety. She has been admitted twice to a crisis center.

Vicky Thoms, 55, a bystander who was punched in the face when she tried to intervene in the beating, attended the sentencing. Afterward, she said she did not know if justice was served, but hoped that Brown and others would take away a message about the world needing more love and less violence.

She has also had difficulty coping with the experience. "It's hard to go outside," she said. "I never dreamed that I would see anything like that in my life."

Turnbull watched the videotapes of the April 18 attack — one taken by a McDonald's employee that was posted online and the surveillance footage from McDonald's. The employee's video showed Polis being kicked and struck in the head, then dragged by the hair across the floor.

The attack brought nationwide attention to the plight of transgender people, and thousands signed online petitions or attended rallies. Soon after, Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would work with lawmakers on legislation to provide more protections for transgender people.

The 14-year-old girl charged as a juvenile in the attack admitted her responsibility July 1. She remains in juvenile detention facility, prosecutors said.