YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mistrial Declared in Teen's Killing

Prosecutor says he will move to retry three men accused of killing the transgender student.

June 23, 2004|Marisa Lagos | Special to The Times

HAYWARD, Calif. — A mistrial was declared Tuesday in the case of three men charged with beating and killing a transgender teenager in 2002 after a jury told the court that it could not reach a verdict.

Gasps and muffled cries from the victim's family were heard when Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard announced that the panel of eight men and four women was "hopelessly deadlocked" on the first-degree murder counts against Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, all 24. The three were accused of beating and strangling Eddie Araujo, who went by Gwen, after learning that the 17-year-old they thought was female was biologically male.

The jury had the option of finding the men guilty of manslaughter or first- or second-degree murder. A hate-crime enhancement, which could have added four years to any of the defendant's sentences, was also available to the jury.

The case attracted national attention and was closely followed by transgender advocates, who said a manslaughter verdict or an acquittal would send the message that society does not value the lives of transgender people -- those who believe their gender identity is different than the one they were assigned at birth.

Those advocates hailed the jurors, who apparently rejected the defense argument that the slaying was a crime of passion and should be considered voluntary manslaughter. Merel and Magidson had sex with Araujo in the weeks before the crime.

The jury foreman told the judge that after nine days of deliberations, two panel members believed that Merel and Cazares were guilty of first-degree murder, with 10 dissenting, and that seven jurors had voted to convict Magidson on the first-degree count. Jurors left the courthouse without commenting to reporters.

Prosecutor Chris Lamiero said immediately that he would retry the three men and set a July 30 date to begin that process. Outside court, Lamiero said that he was "frustrated" by the outcome but that he believes another jury would be able to reach unanimous guilty verdicts.

Defense lawyers, however, criticized the jury's acknowledgment that they never got past the first-degree charge and blamed the "one or two jurors" who would not budge. The three defense attorneys remained upbeat about their clients' chances at a second trial.

"They only considered first degree. They never even got to manslaughter," said J. Tony Serra, Cazares' attorney. "I think they gave the judgment based on emotion.... This case will be retried and we will be vindicated."

Araujo was a high school senior in the San Francisco suburb of Newark when the killing occurred nearly two years ago. Since then, the teen's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, has became somewhat of a spokeswoman for the transgender community. Araujo's brother said the family would be as visible at a second trial as they were during the first.

"What we fear most is having to relive it again," David Guerrero said. "We'll try to stay strong and hopefully this will be the last time -- but if it takes 20 times to get justice, we'll do it 20 times."

During the trial, jurors heard how Araujo -- a striking teenager with long hair and pronounced features -- was bludgeoned to death at the home of Merel's brother after an Oct. 3, 2002, party, and buried in El Dorado National Forest.

Although the prosecutor urged jurors to view Araujo's death as a cold-blooded murder, defense attorneys contended the crime was fueled by a passionate rage and should have been considered manslaughter. Magidson and Merel reportedly had anal sex with Araujo in the weeks before the killing, not knowing the victim was biologically male. During the trial, defense attorneys argued that the shock at realizing Araujo's identity spurred their clients' rage.

That argument angered the family and their supporters, who said there is no moral justification for taking another person's life. Gloria Allred, Sylvia Guerrero's attorney, called it a "Tony Soprano-style" murder.

"It was not a television show. Gwen was not an actor," said Allred, surrounded by nearly 20 visibly upset members of Araujo's family. "She was a teenager whose whole life ended by this cruel and violent act and Sylvia and her family continue to suffer the consequences."

Advocates for transgender people said they were disappointed by the mistrial but encouraged that the jury was considering the murder charges.

"Today was justice delayed, not justice denied," said Christopher Daley, co-director of the Transgender Law Center. "We're going to take the message forward that transgender people have to be respected and valued."

"It was clear to all the jurors that it was intentional, it was murder," added Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "If this jury had considered manslaughter ... it would have sent a chilling message to women, including transgender women, that they can be held responsible for crimes against them."

Los Angeles Times Articles