Trial of Gwen Araujo's accused killers begins

By admin

Originally published on Advocate.com March 16 2004 12:00 AM ET

The gruesome evidence, the brutal injuries--David Guerrero dreads hearing of these at the trial of the three men accused of killing his sister's child, transgendered teen Gwen Araujo. But he planned to be there for the beginning of jury selection on Monday, part of his family's quiet but determined effort to make sure that Araujo--and the thousands of other transgendered people living under the threat of violence--aren't forgotten. "That's what keeps me going," Guerrero said. "That's going to be my form of justice."

Araujo, 17, was strangled and beaten to death in October 2002, after three men allegedly discovered she was biologically male at a party in the Northern California city of Newark. The killing drew national headlines when police found her body buried in a shallow grave in the Sierra foothills. Transgender activists rallied and marched, and within days the crime had become well-known. Some drew comparisons to the death of Brandon Teena, the subject of the movie Boys Don't Cry, who was raped and murdered in Nebraska 10 years ago after two male acquaintances found out that although he lived as a man, he had been born a woman.

The Guerrero family was caught in a media whirlwind. "We were just blown away," Guerrero said. "We literally did interviews for about three months on a daily basis." Guerrero became a kind of family spokesman, taking over when his sister Sylvia, Araujo's mom, could not. Sylvia describes her ordeal in the latest issue of The Advocate. "This is a beautiful, gracious, loving, generous family," said state assemblyman Mark Leno, a gay leader from San Francisco who has been struck by their campaign for tolerance. "They have had all to be victims at the hands of people who just don't think and don't feel."

The Guerreros' ordeal began October 3, 2002, when Araujo went out to meet friends at a party and did not return. Two weeks later, Jaron Nabors, one of the young men who had been at the party, led police to her body. Nabors later testified against his friends at a preliminary hearing last year in exchange for being allowed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The three remaining defendants are Michael William Magidson, Jose Antonio Merel, and Jason Michael Cazares, who face 29 years to life in prison if
convicted of the murder, which was charged as a hate crime.

According to Nabors, the story began in the summer of 2002, when the four defendants met the pretty, flirtatious girl they knew as Lida. Merel and Magidson later had sexual contact with Lida, according to Nabors, growing suspicious about her gender after they began comparing notes about the encounters. On October 3, the four confronted Lida at Merel's house, shouting, "Are you a man or a woman?" and sending a woman friend into the bathroom with her to find out. Then the beating began. Araujo begged for mercy, saying "No! Please don't. I have a family." She was struck in the head with a skillet, punched, and choked, Nabors said. She took a blow to the face so hard her head crashed into the wall, leaving an indentation. She was tied up, wrapped in a blanket, and dragged into the garage to keep blood from getting on the carpet. Nabors said he did not see what happened next, but he said one of his friends later told him he had strangled Araujo, and another admitted hitting her twice over the head with a shovel to make sure she was dead.

Defense attorneys had different interpretations of the evidence. Cazares's lawyer, Tony Serra, said his client was no more than an accessory after the fact. Serra also argued that the case had to be viewed as a crime of passion. Merel's lawyer said the evidence did not indicate his client was involved in the actual killing. Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, argued that his client should not be tried for anything more than manslaughter because he was pushed beyond reason by the discovery that he had unwittingly had sex with a man. The judge rejected arguments that the crime, which unfolded over about two hours, was committed in the heat of passion, ruling that all three should be tried for murder.

Jury selection could take two weeks. Meanwhile, Thorman has asked for a change of venue, saying it may be hard to find people who have not heard about the case. Guerrero hopes the trial will bring some closure to the family, but he knows it will never be enough. "It's just horrible," he said. "There's a lot of good that's going to come out of this, hopefully, but for our family, it's tragedy."