Araujo's killers sentenced
by Zak Szymanski
Community members embraced, family members cried, children bounced on relatives' laps, and in a several-hour court session, much of what had been repressed and privately expressed for years was publicly aired to a packed courtroom on Friday, January 27 at the sentencing hearing for the convicted killers of East Bay transgender teenager Gwen Araujo.
Born as a boy named Eddie but living as a female since the age of 14, Araujo, 17, was beaten, tortured, and strangled at a Newark house party in 2002 after a group of young men – two of whom she reportedly had sex with – discovered she was biologically male.
Claiming that the discovery threatened their sexualities and fragile self-images, defendants Michael Magidson, 25, and Jose Merel, 26, claimed a "gay panic" defense but were convicted of second-degree murder after their retrial last summer (the first trial in 2004 ended with a mistrial when jurors were unable to arrive at a unanimous decision regarding first-degree murder). Jason Cazares, 26 – whom witnesses largely tried to protect during police interviews and court testimony – negotiated a deal with prosecutors at the end of his second mistrial and pleaded no contest to manslaughter at the end of last year.
All three men were sentenced last Friday at the Hayward Hall of Justice before Judge Harry Sheppard after last-ditch attempts by their attorneys to secure new trials were denied; Magidson and Merel received the mandatory sentences of 15 years to life, while Cazares, under his plea-bargain, received six years, which Sheppard allowed him to start serving in March after the birth of his child.
Ranging from emotional to intellectual to vengeful, victim impact statements given by Araujo's family members filled a full hour of testimony.
Araujo's mother Sylvia Guerrero expressed her own sympathy for the defendants' families but emphasized that life without her own child would never be the same.
Araujo's sister Pearl Serrano told defendants that they had "forever changed" her family.
"I can't understand how you thought you had the right to take a life away," said Serrano. "Whether gay, lesbian, or transgender, we are all human."
Guerrero's sister, Imelda Guerrero, a regular presence in the courtroom for the past few years, noted that Araujo's last words before her beating were, "Please don't, I have a family," and she vowed that her family would continue to fight in Araujo's name. "Every single one of them had more than one opportunity to save her life," said Imelda Guerrero of the defendants. "I have no shame in saying I hate all of them."
Araujo's uncle Benny Guerrero taunted the defendants with profanity and descriptions of the hell they would endure. Araujo's aunt Guadalupe Downing said that when the defendants "become real men" they would ask for forgiveness, while another aunt faced the defendants and spoke almost maternally to them, describing her conversations with God about their futures.
Family attorney Gloria Allred read statements on behalf of others, including Araujo's younger teenage brothers, who said, "We think the only deception was by those who made Gwen believe they cared for her."
Emma Rodrigues, another of Araujo's aunts, emphasized the impact that the case had on all women.
"They killed her because they weren't sexually satisfied, she didn't fit into their warped definition of 'sexual encounters with women.' Most or all of them had significant others at the time, yet they made sure they'd keep Gwen on the side for their sexual convenience regardless of their suspicions of her gender. Gwen used poor judgment by getting into that truck. Did these guys always pick up beautiful underage girls off the street? She also made the mistake of having sexual relations with people she barely knew, but she should not have had to pay for that mistake with her life," read Rodrigues. "No one forced these guys into having these sexual acts with her, perhaps they should choose more carefully who they have sexual relationships with. They only knew Gwen for a few months, I doubt that they wanted a meaningful long term relationship or that they wanted to get to know her as a person. Just as having sex with different women boosted their egos and made them feel more macho, maybe her having sex with them just validated her feelings of being a beautiful young woman. She lived every day of her life yearning and longing to be a girl in every sense of the word, so if anyone who didn't know her made her feel that way, why would she reveal that she is transgender? Especially in today's society, she would have been rejected if not harmed had she been so open about it."
Like many of Araujo's family members, Rodrigues also took issue with Cazares's request to delay his imprisonment until the birth of his child.
"He took part in ending a life without hesitation. We never got to say goodbye to Gwen. I don't think it's right that he should be there to welcome a new life," she said.
During the statements, Merel often faced the family members while Magidson and Cazares stared ahead. Given their own chances to speak, Merel expressed deep sorrow and regret for his role in Araujo's death, while Magidson expressed anger at his verdict and "no remorse," according to Sheppard, for Araujo's death.
"This case was based entirely on lies," Magidson said, who promised that those in the court would "never break my spirit."
After the sentencing, victim advocate Erin Osanna of the Alameda County District Attorney's office told the Bay Area Reporter that she found Magidson's display shocking.
"In all the cases that I've had, I've only seen defendants do that two or three times – blaming the world and taking no responsibility," she said.
Coincidentally, the California state Assembly on January 26 passed AB1160 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), a bill that seeks to limit the use of "gay panic" defenses at criminal trials.