There’s no debate that pretty Gwen Araujo ended up dead after the men she was partying with discovered that the 17-year-old was biologically male. But will a jury agree that it was murder?
Another jury deadlocked on the question last year after the defense argued for manslaughter, a crime committed in a heat of passion sparked by sexual deception. The defense infuriated Araujo’s family and transgender activists who called it a case of blaming the victim.
On Monday, prosecutors will try again as jury selection begins in a second attempt to convince a jury that what happened to Araujo was a cold, calculated killing. Lawyers estimate it will take about four weeks to seat a jury and two more months to finish the trial.
“Everybody’s asking questions, talking about it,” said Christopher Daley, director of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, who expects the defense “to come out swinging a lot harder.”
Beaten and strangled
Michael Magidson, 24, Jose Merel, 25, and Jason Cazares, 25, are charged with killing Araujo, who was born Edward but came to believe her true identity was as a woman. After she died, her mother had her name legally changed as a mark of respect.
According to a fourth man, Jaron Nabors, 22, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a plea bargain and agreed to testify against the others, Araujo was beaten and strangled after her biological identity was revealed during a confrontation at Merel’s house in a San Francisco suburb.
The four men had met Araujo, whom they knew as “Lida,” months earlier and became fast friends.
According to testimony from the defendants’ first trial, both Merel and Magidson had sex with Araujo and became suspicious that she was not biologically female.
Their suspicions were confirmed on Oct. 4, 2002, when a young woman at the house grabbed Araujo’s genitals, Nabors testified. Nabors said he saw Merel hit Araujo with a can and a skillet and Magidson punched, choked and kicked her.
Araujo begged for her life, saying “No, please don’t. I have a family,” Nabors said.
The attack dragged on for more than an hour, and Nabors said he left before the actual killing. He said Magidson later talked about twisting a rope around Araujo’s neck.
The next day, all four men took the body to the Sierra foothills, where it lay for nearly two weeks until Nabors led police to the grave.
'Almost primal' response
At the first trial, defense attorneys hammered away at Nabors’ credibility, pointing out that he told different stories to police.
Magidson’s attorney, Michael Thorman, acknowledged that Magidson played a role in the attack and said he was sorry for it. But he argued that it was “classic manslaughter,” suggesting that the sudden discovery of Araujo’s biological identity was a violation “so deep, it’s almost primal.”
Merel’s attorney said jurors only had Nabors’ word for it that Merel was involved in the assault. Cazares, the only defendant to testify, said he also was outside when the killing took place and only helped bury the body.
The jurors deliberated for about nine days in June 2004 before announcing they were hopelessly divided.
First-degree murder is punishable by 25 years to life, second-degree by 15 years to life and manslaughter by up to 11 years. The case was also charged as a hate crime, a potential extra four years.
Magidson and Merel are being held without bail. Cazares is out on $1 million bail.