TV & Radio
Oakland Tribune Op-Ed.
Article Last Updated: 09/15/2005 08:22:21 AM
Verdicts provide justice for Araujo, family
FINALLY, after two trials and almost three years, an Alameda County jury has provided at least some measure of justice for Gwen Araujo and her family.
Jurors on Monday afternoon found Michael Magidson of Fremont and Jose Merel of Newark guilty of second-degree murder, although they deadlocked on the third defendant, Jason Cazares of Newark. Magidson and Merel will be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
"The jury did an awesome job," Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, told reporters outside the Hayward Hall of Justice after the verdicts were read. "I totally appreciate their hard work and dedication."
We agree. The eight-man, four-woman jury should be commended for their diligence in this long, grueling case. Unlike the jury in the first trial — which deadlocked on all three defendants in June 2004 — this jury heard Magidson's and Merel's sides of the story. But that only made their job more difficult.
They had to listen to multiple versions of the events leading up to the slaying in the early hours of Oct. 4, 2002, when Araujo was beaten, strangled and buried in a shallow grave in the Sierra foothills.
Merel — who along with Magidson had had sexual relations with Araujo — testified that he hit Araujo in the head with a frying pan and menaced her with a can of food after he learned she had male genitalia. However, he said he didn't know the assault would end in death. Magidson acknowledged that he was the main attacker, but said he didn't kill Araujo. Instead, he told jurors that a fourth man, Jaron Nabors, admitted he strangled the teen.
Cazares, who also testified during the first trial, told jurors that he never hit Araujo and didn't witness the entire assault. But he admitted that he helped his friends bury her body in the El Dorado National Forest east of Placerville.
The jurors had to weigh the defendants' credibility against that of the prosecution's key witness, 22-year-old Nabors, who initially also was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for his testimony against the others.
Nabors indicated Magidson was to blame, saying he saw him bring a rope toward Araujo's neck, and that Magidson later told him he twisted it.
The biggest question remaining now, of course, is whether prosecutor Chris Lamiero will decide to try Cazares — whom the jury voted 9-3 to convict of murder as well — for a third time.
"In the next few weeks, we'll decide what to do about that," Lamiero said after Monday's verdicts.
Also, Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, said he definitely will appeal the verdict, and Merel's lawyer, William Du Bois, said he may appeal as well.
As the legal process continues, however, Araujo's family may take comfort in the fact that the jury has drawn a line in the sand.
Murder was committed in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2002, and at least two men are guilty.
Partial justice in Araujo case
Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Change rarely happens by revolt. Rather, it usually comes as a slow, evolutionary transition. It often moves so slowly that you don't see the change until long after it has happened, like spring turning into summer, then summer into autumn.
Ten years ago, a young transgender woman went home with a man. They had sex. At some point near the end of the evening, this man beat her, and then strangled her for several minutes. She died from this encounter.
Her killer claimed that he panicked when he discovered that the woman, Chanelle Pickett, was biologically male. In this case, decided in May of 1997, the killer, William Palmer, received a 2 1/2 year sentence -- for assault.
Nearly a decade later, a 17-year-old transgender girl hooked up with four boys. Over the course of the three months they knew each other, she had sexual encounters with two of them. Then, one October evening in 2002, they discovered she was biologically a male. She was also beaten and strangled to death.
Two of her killers -- Michael Magidson and Jose Merel -- claimed they had simply panicked when they discovered that Gwen Araujo was transgender, with Magidson's lawyer in particular pushing this claim of "trans panic." Merel's lawyer -- as Palmer's defense did in 1997 -- claimed that his client was culpable only of assault, not murder or even manslaughter.
Things have changed. These two men did not get off lightly, and they will not be back on the streets for some time. They each face a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life that can keep them locked away in the California penal system for decades.
A year after Chanelle Pickett's trial ended, I began to track anti-transgender murders and, in October of 2002, I attended the funeral of Gwen Araujo. This is a day I will never be able to forget -- and also a day I hope never to forget. After seeing Gwen, lying in her coffin in a small chapel that early autumn day, I knew I had to continue to fight for change.
I attended the preliminary trial in her case, and protested outside the courthouse over a bail attempt by Michael Magidson's attorney. I also attended much of the first trial, and saw a jury deadlock on each of the three defendants on trial. As days turned into months and years, my feelings toward this case deepened.
I cannot describe what it is like to view photos that the coroner took of Gwen Araujo, or listen to defense attorneys blame the victim for her own death.
I sat through this most recent trial, and watched spring turn to summer. I waited, as patiently as I could, outside a courtroom over the last couple of days, hoping that this jury would be able to bring forth justice -- and they did, mostly.
Murder is murder, so I am happy that, although the jury did not find for first-degree murder, they did find for second-degree. This alone throws out claims of "trans panic," in which the argument is that -- because it was a "crime of passion" -- the perpetrator can't be held fully accountable for taking another person's life.
Yet this act was not ruled to be a hate crime. Frankly, I don't think enough was presented to determine that and. furthermore, the hate crime statute in California is simply not well-formed: The law, as written, makes it more difficult to prove an act was motivated by hate than it does to prove it was.
There is also another man who, for now, is free on bail. That man, Jason Cazares, was also there that night, and he also participated in the acts that took the life of Gwen Araujo. The jury in this second case deadlocked as to the level of his charge, with nine of the three wishing to convict. Now, Cazares will likely end up in a plea deal, and -- like Jaron Nabors, the fourth man to take part in this killing -- he could end up in jail only for manslaughter. Or even less, as his lawyer is pushing for a very light "accessory after the fact" charge.
So justice, like all change, comes slowly. In 10 years, we've seen the killing of a transgender person go from being a simple assault to being a second-degree murder, and we've seen the "trans panic" defense go from something a jury will buy to something they'll toss out.
Yet there is more change to come. We've not yet seen full justice for Gwen, and other recent cases have shown that there is still work to be done. People are still killed as a result of anti-transgender violence, at a rate of more than one killing a month.
As the differences between the trials of Chanelle Pickett's and Gwen Araujo's killers show, we are growing closer and closer to justice.
Change may be slow, but it is also inevitable.
Gwen Smith is the founder of the Remembering Our Dead Project.