TV & Radio
Legacy Of Gwen Araujo: Death Of Gay, Trans Panic Defense
by Michelle Locke, Associated Press
Posted: September 16, 2005 9:00 pm ET
(San Francisco, California) In the early hours of Oct. 4, 2002, 17-year-old Gwen Araujo was punched, gashed, choked, tied up and strangled.
And that, a jury decided, was murder, despite defense claims Araujo provoked the attack by not telling her male companions - and occasional sex partners - that she was born biologically male.
The verdicts, which followed murder convictions in the beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard as well as those in the murder of Brandon Teena, whose story was told in the movie "Boys Don't Cry," may suggest a shift in societal attitudes.
Getting murder convictions is still tough; defendants continue to use "gay panic" or "trans panic" defenses, and often avoid more serious charges in such killings.
Still, transgender advocates hope the Araujo verdicts mean that Americans are much less likely to believe that people who defy traditional gender definitions were asking for brutal retribution.
"It has been such a long time up to now before juries got around to the point of believing that it actually wasn't OK to do this to people," said Clarence Patton of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a coalition of gay, transgender and other groups. "People are not buying the concept of 'gay panic' or 'trans panic."
A gay, or trans panic defense is that a defendant killed or hurt someone of the same sex in a rage after they had sex or thought they were on the receiving end of a sexual overture.
While Araujo jurors apparently weren't convinced of that, at least for two of the three men charged with killing Gwen, other decisions have gone differently.
In Central California, a Fresno man recently pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got the minimum sentence, four years, after claiming he panicked when he discovered the woman he'd brought home was biologically male. He had stabbed the victim 20 times. (story)
And in Kentucky, a man charged with murdering a gay man and stuffing his body into a suitcase was convicted of a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter earlier this year after arguing that he'd defended himself against an unwanted sexual advance from the victim. (story)
Probably the best-known panic defense was evoked in the 1998 murder of Shepard, who was tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., pistol-whipped, robbed and left for dead in the cold, dying five days later of massive head injuries. Defense attorneys claimed one of the two men charged in the case flew into a rage after Shepard made a pass at him.
The judge disallowed the defense and the men received multiple life sentences.
Panic wasn't raised in the case of Teena, a 21-year-old Nebraskan who was born a woman but identified as a man. Prosecutors said he was killed in 1993, along with two witnesses, after reporting being raped by two men who had discovered his biological identity. A 2001 court opinion found that the sheriff at the time callously referred to Teena as "it" after he reported the rape and didn't immediately arrest the suspects.
One of the men was sentenced to death; the other, who testified for the prosecution, got life in prison. (story)
The Araujo verdicts weren't a sweeping statement. Jurors decided against first-degree murder for Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, convicting them of second-degree instead, and hung 9-3 on second-degree murder for the third defendant, Jason Cazares. They also didn't agree with prosecutors this was a hate crime. (story)
Araujo was born a boy named Edward but grew up to believe her true identity was female. She met the defendants, all 25, in late summer 2002 and they became friends. Magidson and Merel had sexual encounters with Araujo on separate occasions and grew suspicious of her gender after comparing notes, according to a fourth member of the group, 22-year-old Jaron Nabors, who was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testifying.
There was a confrontation at Merel's house in the San Francisco suburb of Newark. Araujo's underwear was roughly pushed aside; the secret was out.
Magidson had sought a manslaughter conviction, admitting that he beat and tied up Araujo but saying he couldn't remember strangling her. Merel's attorney asked for no more than felony assault, saying his client slapped Araujo and hit her in the head with a pan, but didn't kill her. Cazares sought acquittal, saying he was outside when the killing took place and only helped bury the body.
A first trial ended in a mistrial, when jurors were unable to reach agreement on whether to find the men guilty of first or second degree murder. (story)
In the second trial, Magidson and Merel were found guilty of second degree murder, but the jury could not reach a verdict for Cazares. (story)
Although they took different strategies, none of the three lawyers allowed that there was premeditation in the case, calling it manslaughter, a crime committed in a heat of passion provoked by sexual deception.
Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, said after the verdict that he hadn't been claiming a panic defense. He defined that approach as justifying violence in response to a mere sexual overture from someone of the same sex. In this case, he said, actual sex was involved, leading to "a surge of rage and violence" fueled by emotions, deception and alcohol.
But others disagreed.
"What the panic was caused by was their reaction to someone not falling into one gender or the other as neatly as they had in their heads," said Brad Sears, director of the Williams Project, a UCLA think tank dealing with sexual orientation law and public policy.
He believes courts should reexamine manslaughter arguments in such cases.
"We really need to question if our state, our society still wants to say it's justified to act with a murderous rage when things happen, like you find out someone's of a different gender or is gay or your girlfriend is sleeping with somebody else," Sears said.
Since Araujo was killed, four other transgender people have been killed in the San Francisco Bay area - all unsolved slayings.
After the verdict, Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, who has taken on an active role speaking out for other transgender victims, said she was satisfied with the verdicts against Magidson and Merel.
"Nothing is going to bring Gwen back," she said. "But this is at least a step toward closure and healing for my family."
"This is not a vengeful community," said Patton. "We just want some acknowledgment and justice served. That is all that we've ever really asked for."