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Mistrial Declared in Teen’s Killing

Special to The Times

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on the testimony of Jaron Nabors, 21, who was also charged with murder in Araujo’s death. Nabors struck a deal with prosecutors allowing him to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter if he took the stand against his friends. He is serving an 11-year sentence instead of a possible 25 years to life, and did not face the hate-crime enhancement.

Witnesses said Araujo was attacked early on Oct. 4, 2002, after partygoers discovered the teenager’s biological gender. According to testimony in the nearly two-month trial, Magidson and Merel initially beat the teen with their fists, then slapped and strangled Araujo inside the Merel house.

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Then, Nabors testified, Merel assaulted Araujo with a frying pan and soup can, striking the teen’s head so hard that the can dented. In his testimony during the trial’s preliminary hearings, Nabors said Magidson punched and kneed Araujo’s face so severely that the plaster wall behind the victim was “indented and cracked.”

Next, according to testimony, Merel, Magidson, Nabors and Cazares carried the victim into the garage, where Magidson allegedly strangled the teen with a rope and one of the defendants struck Araujo’s head with a shovel. At some point, Nabors and Cazares drove to Cazares’ house, picked up a shovel and drove back to the Merel residence.

Nabors testified that eventually Araujo was tied up, thrown in the back of Magidson’s truck and driven into the Sierra foothills, where the four men dug a shallow grave. After the four-hour trip, Nabors said, the defendants went to a McDonald’s drive-through for breakfast.

Nabors, who led police to Araujo’s body about two weeks after the killing, was named in the case when he confessed to a friend who was wearing a wiretap. His credibility as a witness was continually attacked by defense attorneys, who contended that parts of his testimony were untrue and criticized his cooperation with the district attorney.

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During his closing argument, Lamiero, the deputy district attorney, portrayed the crime as a calculated murder. He said the defendants killed Araujo because of their own weaknesses, saying that Merel’s brother, Paul, also had sex with Araujo but walked away from the murder scene that night.

Transgender advocates, meanwhile, vowed to continue fighting on behalf of Araujo, and announced that a rally would take place Friday in San Francisco to commemorate Araujo and victims of hate crimes.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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