Trial of Gwen Araujo's accused killers begins
April 16 2004 12:00 AM ET
The killing of Eddie "Gwen" Araujo drew national attention to the issue of violence committed against transgendered people. But ultimately the case is about murder, a prosecutor said as the trial of the men accused of killing Araujo began on Wednesday. "Make no mistake about it--Eddie's death was an execution," prosecutor Chris Lamiero said. Araujo, 17, was beaten and strangled in the Northern California town of Newark in October 2002 after her biological gender was forcibly revealed by the people she thought were her friends. "It was this cast of characters that would snuff out his life, stick him in a hole in the forest, and then head off to McDonald's for breakfast," said Lamiero, who is using female pronouns when talking about Araujo as "Gwen" or "Lida," the names she went by, but male pronouns when talking about Araujo as a murder victim.
On trial are Michael Magidson, 23, and Jose Merel and Jason Cazares, both 24. A fourth man, 20-year-old Jaron Nabors, initially was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and has been promised an 11-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying against the other three. It was Nabors who in mid October led police to Araujo's body, buried in a shallow grave in a remote
area near Lake Tahoe. At a preliminary hearing last year, Nabors gave a starkly detailed picture of
Araujo's final hours, describing how the teen was choked, hit with a skillet, kneed in the face, tied up, and strangled.
Nabors and the three men on trial had met Araujo as "Lida" in the summer of 2002 and had become friends with her, often hanging out at Merel's house in Newark, a San Francisco suburb. But suspicions about her gender arose, and Merel and Magidson, who had both had sex with Araujo, began to compare notes about their encounters, setting the stage for the showdown at Merel's house on October 3. Lamiero described the three, along with Nabors, working together to kill Araujo. The prosecutor said Merel had "absolutely no use for gay people," adding that it wasn't clear whether the others shared that bias. He described Magidson as "profoundly insecure" about his masculinity and someone with something to prove. It was Magidson who pulled the rope tight around Araujo's neck, Lamiero
Attorneys for Magidson and Merel have suggested that their clients may have acted in the heat of passion, which would support a manslaughter charge instead of murder. In his opening statement, given to a courtroom packed with relatives of Araujo and the defendants, Cazares's lawyer, Tony Serra, strove to distance his client from the other two, portraying Cazares as a peripheral figure who was
drunk and confused the night of the confrontation. Serra said Cazares did not have a sexual relationship with Araujo, whom he considered too loud and flirtatious, and was not part of the angry investigation
into her gender. Serra said Cazares never struck Araujo, instead intervening three times on her behalf. Prosecutor Lamiero suggested that that was due to Cazares's wanting to wait until others at the house that night had left. But Serra called that "malarkey" and said Cazares was trying to protect Araujo. Serra conceded that Cazares helped bury Araujo's body but said that was a case of loyalty to Merel and Magidson, with whom he had a "three musketeers" bond. "He couldn't say no to his friends. They were like brothers," Serra said.
Nabors has said that Cazares tacitly admitted to hitting Araujo twice over the head with a shovel after she was strangled to make sure she was dead. Serra said Cazares, who will testify, denies ever striking Araujo. The lawyer added that tests on the shovels did not reveal blood. Serra went on to attack Nabors's credibility as a witness, saying he was an "expert liar" who would say anything to get himself out of a murder charge.
Afterward, Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, said the day had been a hard one. Lamiero gave jurors a full account of the blows Araujo took. He described what are believed to be her last words: "Please don't. I have a family." He said Araujo's last memory may have been of Magidson driving his knee into her head. "I love Gwen, and I miss Gwen," Guerrero said outside the courthouse. "I'm a mom. It's extremely difficult to hear details [of the death] again, but nevertheless it has to happen."