Transgender murder case ends in mistrial

Gasps of dismay sounded in the courtroom as the trial of three men charged with killing a transgendered teenager ended Tuesday with the jury declaring they were deadlocked. Jurors, who had been deliberating for about nine days, said that according to their latest ballot, they were stuck 10-2 in favor of acquitting Jose Merel and Jason Cazares on first-degree murder charges and 7-5 in favor of convicting Michael Magidson. The three defendants, all age 24, were charged with killing Gwen Araujo. Merel and Magidson had had sexual encounters with Araujo in the months before her death, and according to prosecutors, the killing occurred after a showdown over the trio's growing suspicions about Araujo's biological gender.

The panel of eight men and four women had the option of returning verdicts of second-degree murder or manslaughter, but only if they unanimously decided to acquit on the first-degree charge. The jury foreman told Alameda County superior court judge Harry Sheppard that the panel was "unable to pass beyond the point of reasonable doubt," and further deliberations would not help. Sheppard then declared a mistrial, a ruling that left some Araujo supporters gasping in dismay while Araujo's sister hurried out of the courtroom in tears. According to trial testimony, the 17-year-old Araujo was beaten and strangled in the early morning hours of October 4, 2002, following a confrontation at Merel's house in Newark, a San Jose suburb. Prosecutor Chris Lamiero called the killing cold-blooded murder, relying for much of his case on the testimony of a fourth man at the house, 21-year-old Jaron Nabors. Nabors, who led police to Araujo's body, had initially been charged with murder but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to testify against his former friends.

The case had been closely watched by transgender advocates, who said the verdicts would show how highly transgendered people's lives are valued. "We're astonished that the jury could not convict on murder at this point. We believe that there is enough evidence that there was a murder that took place," activist Julie Dorf said after the verdict. Araujo's family did not immediately have any comment on the verdict. Defense attorneys had attacked Nabors's credibility, hammering away at the fact that he gave police conflicting statements at first. Cazares, the only defendant to testify, had sought acquittal, saying he was outside the house when the killing took place and helped only to bury the body. Magidson's attorney acknowledged his client played a role in the attack but said the case did not amount to more than manslaughter because it took place in the heat of passion provoked by sexual deception. Merel's attorney said jurors had only Nabors's word for it that Merel was involved in the assault, but even if they believed Nabors, they could not find Merel guilty of anything more than manslaughter.

First-degree murder is punishable by 25 years to life, second-degree by 15 years to life, and manslaughter by 11 years maximum. The case had also been charged as a hate crime, which could have added four years to the sentences. Lamiero said he plans to retry the case. Araujo's family and members of the transgender community had bitterly contested the "crime of passion" argument, saying it sought to blame the victim. After announcement of the mistrial, Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, said it appeared some jurors agreed sexual provocation led to the killing. Cazares's attorney, Tony Serra, said he was "chagrined" by the verdict. "One or two jurors independently, probably with an emotional basis, stuck to their guns for first-degree. I don't think that's fair," he said.

Christopher Daley, codirector of the Transgender Law Center, remained optimistic about the result. "Because the defense team tried to make this a trial about Gwen's gender identity instead of the defendants' conduct, a lot of us were anxious about this verdict," he said. "Even though I am disappointed by the delay in achieving justice for Gwen, I am heartened that these jurors refused to let these young men escape responsibility for their horrific choices."

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