Murder of Gwen Araujo
|Murder of Gwen Araujo|
|Date||October 3, 2002|
Gwen Araujo (February 24, 1985 – October 3, 2002) was an American teenage trans woman who was murdered in Newark, California. She was killed by four men, two of whom she had allegedly been sexually intimate with, who beat and strangled her after discovering she was transgender. Two of the defendants were convicted of second-degree murder, but not convicted on the requested hate crime enhancements. The other two defendants pleaded guilty or no contest to voluntary manslaughter. In at least one of the trials, a "trans panic defense"—an extension of the gay panic defense—was employed.
Witness account of the circumstances of Araujo's death
Araujo, who was undergoing hormone therapy and going by the name of Gwen Araujo at the time, met Michael Magidson, Jose Merél, Jaron Nabors, and Jason Cazares in the summer of 2002. She was reported to have engaged in oral sex with Magidson and anal sex with Merél. She allegedly claimed to be menstruating and during sex would push her partners' hands away from her genitalia to prevent them from discovering that she had male sex organs. On October 3, 2002, she attended a party at a house rented by Merél and his brother, Paul Merél. Also in attendance at the party were Magidson, Jose Merél, Nabors, Cazares, Paul Merél, Paul Merél's girlfriend Nicole Brown, and Emmanual Merél.
At the party, she was discovered, by forced inspection (conducted by Brown), to be anatomically male, following which the men with whom she had sexual relations became violent. Magidson put Araujo in a chokehold. Later, he punched Araujo in the face and began to choke her, but was pulled off by others. At some point after that, Paul Merél, Emmanuel Merél, and Brown left the house. Jose Merél struck Araujo in the head with a can of food and a frying pan. Nabors and Cazares left in Magidson's truck to go to Cazares's house to get shovels and a pickaxe.
When Nabors and Cazares returned, Araujo was still conscious and sitting on the couch. At some point, the assault resumed. Magidson kneed Araujo in the head against the living room wall, rendering her unconscious. Cazares kicked Araujo. After this, Araujo was taken to the garage of the home. Nabors testified that Magidson strangled Araujo with a rope and that Cazares struck Araujo with a shovel, but Magidson testified that it was Nabors who strangled Araujo and struck her with the shovel, and Cazares testified that he never struck Araujo and did not see Araujo die. Most accounts have Merél cleaning blood out of the carpet at the time that she was strangled. Araujo was then hog-tied, wrapped in a blanket, and placed in the bed of a pick-up truck. They then drove Araujo's body four hours away and buried her near the Sierra Nevada mountains. Araujo's disappearance and murder went unreported for days. It is not clear at what point during this sequence of events Araujo's death occurred. However, the autopsy showed that she died from strangulation associated with blunt force trauma to the head.
The party-goers did not report the crime and the assailants said nothing to anyone about the murder. Two days after Araujo's death, a friend of Jaron Nabors described him as appearing distraught. Nabors, one of the four attackers, led authorities to the grave site in "exchange for his guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter and a promise to testify at the trial."
Alameda County Sheriff's Office dispatched four crime scene investigators and two detectives to recover the body from the grave site. The four accused of the murder were: Michael Magidson, 22; Jaron Nabors, 19; José Merél, 22; and Paul Merél, Jose's older brother. Paul Merél was quickly released because his girlfriend came forward to the police telling them that Paul had left that night with her. Paul Merél and his girlfriend were never charged and became witnesses for the prosecution. Jason Cazares was arrested over a month after the other defendants, after Nabors implicated Cazares in a letter to Nabors' girlfriend, explaining how he (Nabors) wasn't involved in the killing. Nabors later testified against the other three in a deal with the DA for a lesser charge of manslaughter and an 11-year prison sentence after police monitored a telephone conversation between Nabors and his girlfriend, Delores Ojeda.
Magidson argued that he should not be charged with murder, rather manslaughter at worst, under California law.
Three defendants testified in this trial — and blamed each other as well as Nabors. On the 8th of September, the jury announced that it had reached verdicts on two of the three defendants. As Judge Harry Sheppard instructed, the verdicts were kept secret.
On the 12th of September, after the jury announced that it had deadlocked on the third defendant, the verdicts were announced. The defendant on whom the jury had deadlocked was Cazares. Magidson and Merél were each convicted of second-degree murder, but not convicted of the hate crime enhancement allegations.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Chris Lamiero, who represented the prosecution in the case, undermined criminal intent by commenting:
Gwen being transgender was not a provocative act. He's who he was. However, I would not further ignore the reality that Gwen made some decisions in his relation with these defendants that were impossible to defend. I don't think most jurors are going to think it's OK to engage someone in sexual activity knowing they assume you have one sexual anatomy when you don't.
Michael Magidson and Jose Merel were sentenced in January to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder for the killing.
The fourth man, Jason Cazares, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in a plea bargain reached after two juries deadlocked on his fate.
He was sentenced to six years in prison.
On the first anniversary of the murder, Horizons Foundation created the Gwen Araujo Memorial Fund for Transgender Education. The Fund's purpose is to support school-based programs in the nine-county Bay Area that promote understanding of transgender people and issues through annual grants. Through this fund, Araujo's mother and family speak in middle and high schools about transgender awareness and understanding.
A Lifetime Network Movie called A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, starring J. D. Pardo and Mercedes Ruehl, aired in June 2006. The case was also the subject of a 2007 documentary, Trained in the Ways of Men. This documentary by Michelle Prevost examines the 2002 murder, and aims to debunk the so-called gay panic (or trans panic) defense. "Deadly ID", a May 2012 episode of Investigation Discovery's Fatal Encounters, explored the crime's timeline from both Araujo's and Magidson's dramatized perspectives.
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