Defense switches strategies in Araujo murder case

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 03 2005 11:00 PM ET

Darkness
descended the night a transgender teenager was beaten and
strangled to death, the attorney for one of the men accused
in the killing said as he laid out his case for the jury. In a surprising departure from the first trial
in the case, which ended with a hung jury last year,
attorney Bill DuBois said his client, Jose Merel,
would take the stand and talk about his genuine attachment
to 17-year-old Gwen Araujo. "He will tell you about
the horror of that evening, about seeing into the
heart of darkness that descended over that house on
the fourth of October 2002," DuBois said in his opening
statement Thursday. Merel, Michael Magidson, and Jason Cazares, all
25, face charges of first-degree murder. Prosecutors say Araujo, who was born a boy named
Edward but came to believe her true identity was
female, was killed after her biological gender was
revealed during a confrontation at Merel's house in Newark,
a San Francisco suburb. The showdown was prompted,
according to prosecutors, by suspicions that arose
after Merel and Magidson compared notes about their
sexual encounters with Araujo. In his opening statement, prosecutor Chris
Lamiero said the defendants executed Araujo in a
savage but slow attack. But defense attorneys gave a different version.
Cazares's attorney, Tony Serra, said his client--the
only defendant to testify at the first trial--was
outside when the killing took place and helped only to bury
the body out of loyalty to his friends. Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, conceded
his client played a role in the death but said the
case was manslaughter, not murder. "Eddie Araujo was
killed not for what he was but for what he did to
unsuspecting heterosexual males," he said. Merel's
attorney, meanwhile, said his client cared for Araujo
and did not do her serious injury. He said Merel never
intended to kill her and felt intimidated by the others into
going along with the disposal of the body, which was
buried in a shallow grave near Lake Tahoe. Key testimony in the first trial came from the
man who led police to the body--Jaron Nabors, 22.
Nabors, also at the house the night Araujo died,
initially was charged with murder but was allowed to plead
guilty to manslaughter in exchange for his testimony.
In opening statements, the defense hammered at
Nabors's credibility, pointing out his conflicting
statements to police and alleging that Nabors falsely
implicated his friends to cover up his own
culpability. Lamiero said he wouldn't try to claim
that Nabors was "a good guy," but he pointed out that if
prosecutors don't believe he's telling the truth on the
stand, his deal goes away. Nabors testified last year
that he saw Merel strike Araujo with a can of food and
a skillet. But DuBois said Thursday that a devastated Merel
only menaced Araujo, demanding an apology. "He said,
'The least you can do is say you're sorry,"' DuBois
said. "She says, 'I'm sorry.' He takes the pan and
just skips it off the top of her head. That's it." DuBois
said that Nabors, however, struck Araujo in the head
with a hand weight. Thorman, who said Magidson also will testify
this time, said his client did attack Araujo in a
"blind rage." However, he said the plan was to drop
Araujo off on a street corner and leave her to walk home.
Instead, said Thorman, Magidson went into the garage, where
Araujo had been carried, and asked Nabors, who was
also in the garage, whether Araujo had regained
consciousness. "And Jaron says, 'She's not going to
regain consciousness. She's dead.'" Thorman also contested Nabors's account that he
saw Magidson begin to pull a rope around Araujo's neck
and later heard him talking about twisting the rope.
Thorman said Magidson did at one point tell police he
strangled Araujo but that was merely an attempt to protect
the others. Nabors took the stand again Thursday and
described how he and the other three men met Araujo.
He was expected to continue testifying Monday.
Earlier, Thorman said his defense isn't an attempt to shift
blame to Araujo. "Please don't misunderstand," he
said. "I talk about deception and betrayal, but there
is nothing [Araujo] did that justified the brutal
beating that she received and certainly not being killed. It
was wrong. It is a crime, and Mike Magidson is here to take
responsibility for the acts that he committed. But the
evidence will show you that the crime he committed was
manslaughter, not murder." Outside the courtroom, Chris Daley of the
Transgender Law Center said he was dismayed by the
manslaughter defense. "They're continuing to show
disrespect for Gwen," he said, "blaming Gwen for what
happened to her." (AP)

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