TV & Radio
Transgender killings an investigative quagmire
Marginalized lifestyle makes finding witnesses, prosecuting cases difficult
- Wyatt Buchanan, SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005
The conviction of two men this week in the killing of 17-year-old Gwen Araujo was unusual -- but not because transgender slayings are rare.
Since Araujo was beaten and strangled in 2002 during an attack at a party in Newark by men she knew, four other transgender individuals have been killed in the Bay Area.
No one has been charged in any of those four cases. The difficulty, say police and transgender advocates, is that these incidents are not easy to investigate because society tends to marginalize the victims.
The House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday that for the first time would include gender identity in the federal definition of a hate crime, but even if it clears Congress, barriers are likely to remain.
"A lot of things put (transgender people) in contexts that are inherently more dangerous: where they may have to live, where they may have to work," said Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs, which monitors violent crime in the gay community nationwide.
"It's almost like at every step of the way it's much more difficult for transgender folks to really be in a place where they can take things for granted that others can, even gays and lesbians."
Transgender women often live in high-crime areas because housing is cheaper there, and they often work as prostitutes because they can't find employers who accept their gender identity, Patton said.
Those factors and others make it harder to find witnesses when transgender people are victimized, which in turn makes prosecuting the crimes more difficult.
"Any time there is a homicide case where the victim is more vulnerable because of his or her lifestyle, or has a relationship with the perpetrator, it becomes a bigger challenge for the prosecution," said Nancy O'Malley, chief assistant district attorney for Alameda County.
In Fresno, Estanislao Martineza, who pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter in the August 2004 killing of Jose Robles, a transgender woman, was sentenced last week to four years in prison. Gay activists were angered by the relatively short sentence.
Prosecutors say they agreed to the sentence because they could not have done better at trial with the evidence they had.
"One thing that it is not is a reflection of our belief that the death of this individual is properly addressed by a four-year prison sentence," Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Robert Ellis said.
The "heat-of-the-moment" or transgender panic defense was one of many challenges that prosecutors in the case faced, Ellis said.
In San Francisco, the district attorney's office has begun training prosecutors how to rebut gay and transgender panic arguments that defense attorneys often present. Defenders have argued in many cases, including Araujo's, that the accused deserve leniency because when they found out the true identity of their victims they responded in the heat of the moment.
Many transgender homicide cases never get that far.
In San Pablo, 24-year-old Sindy Segura was shot to death at 1:48 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2003. Her body was found near the railroad tracks that border Richmond's Iron Triangle. She was last seen the evening before working a nearby street. She had been shot in the groin, the neck and one arm, said Detective Sgt. Mark Foisie of the San Pablo Police Department. The case was suspended this past spring for lack of new leads, he said.
On Nov. 6 that year, Stanley Van Dyke Traylor, 38, was shot to death in a desolate area of West Oakland, the 2700 block of Union Street. Traylor didn't have a permanent residence and stayed with friends or with tenants at motels, according to Oakland police Sgt. Brian Medeiros. Traylor, who often wore women's clothing, was found wearing denim shorts and a T-shirt. A wig was on the ground nearby.
One man was arrested in connection with the incident, but there was not enough evidence to charge him with any crime, Medeiros said.
Tony "Delicious" Green, a 45-year-old lifelong San Franciscan, was found dead in a motel room in Bayview-Hunters Point on Aug. 13, 2004. Green had been beaten, raped and gagged and died of asphyxiation, said Jennifer Rakowski, associate director of Community United Against Violence, which has worked with Green's family. Green is the only victim with family in the area, an element that transgender activists say was key in keeping the Araujo case in newspapers and on television. Araujo's mother has spoken to thousands of students about her.
San Francisco police have two suspects in Green's killing -- men who went to the motel with Green -- but not enough evidence to charge them, said Inspector Mike Mahoney.
On Feb. 28 this year, Eddie Chung Chou Lee, 42, was found stabbed to death in Westlake Park in Daly City. Lee identified both as a man and as a woman -- Michelle -- and was wearing women's clothing when killed, according to a Daly City Police Department statement. Police have no suspects in the case, said Greg Ogelsby, an investigator with the department.
The legislation the House passed Wednesday offers a ray of hope.
"The bill will allow the FBI and Department of Justice to give money to local law enforcement agencies so they are better able to investigate and prosecute crimes," said Lisa Mottet, a transgender rights attorney with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Those tracking transgender homicides say they don't know for sure how many transgender individuals have been killed, though the leader of another San Francisco organization says she hears of one to three homicides per month around the world. The killings often pass unnoticed because police and then the media report the victim's birth name and biological gender, said Mottet.
"My sense is that we have no idea how often this happens," Mottet said.
Gwen Smith, an Antioch resident who started the Transgender Day of Remembrance and operates the Web site Rememberingourdead.org, which lists information on transgender slayings around the world, finds scant information about suspects.
"Very few (transgender homicide) cases are ever taken to court," said Smith.
E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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