Araujo killers' appeal denied

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday May 20, 2009
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Murder convictions of two of the defendants in the Gwen Araujo murder case were upheld by a state appeals court last week, which ruled that jury instructions given by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard were proper.

The case before the First District Court of Appeal involved two of the four men involved in the brutal death of Araujo, who was beaten and strangled to death at a Newark house party in 2002 at the age of 17.

Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, both 29, were each convicted of second-degree murder after a retrial in 2005. Both men were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. In court documents, lawyers for the men argued that the killing was manslaughter at most, because they acted in the heat of passion after they learned that Araujo was transgender.

But the appeal court panel rejected that argument in its 3-0 decision and said that Sheppard, the trial judge, acted properly.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Chris Lamiero said he was pleased with the appellate court's ruling.

"I was certainly pleased to see they rendered the appropriate decision," Lamiero said last week, referring to the three-judge panel. "The jury was properly instructed."

The Transgender Law Center, which helped Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, after the slaying, also praised last week's decision.

"Gwen's death was a tragedy," said Kristina Wertz, TLC's legal director. "While the court's decision does not bring Gwen back, it brings justice to her memory by rejecting the idea that her killers were somehow less responsible for their actions because of Gwen's gender identity."

Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights who is transgender, pointed out that "many transgender people, especially transgender women of color, have lost their lives due to hatred and bias."

An e-mail sent to Guerrero seeking comment was not immediately answered.

The third defendant in the Araujo case, Jason Cazares, 29, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2005 after a jury deadlocked. He was sentenced to six years in prison. The fourth man, Jaron Nabors, 26, accepted a plea-bargain early on in the case and testified against the others during the 2004 trial and subsequent retrial in exchange for an 11-year sentence.

Araujo was born a boy but lived as a girl in her hometown of Newark since the age of 14. She met the defendants in the summer of 2002 and quickly became a regular at the Merel home, where the group of friends often drank, smoked pot, and played dominoes most nights into the early morning hours. Araujo also reportedly engaged in sexual relations with Merel and Magidson over the course of several weeks, and in October 2002, the men confronted her about her gender, interrogating her and forcibly removing her clothing to reveal male anatomy. That revelation, witnesses testified during the trials, elicited an emotional and chaotic reaction, with the men claiming to have been "tricked" into "homosexual sex" and violently attacking Araujo until she was killed. The friends then drove her body into the Sierra foothills to bury it.