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Keeping Focus on Victim in Retrial

Times Staff Writer

Most days Connie Champagne is there in the courtroom, scrutinizing the evidence presented in the grisly murder of transgender teen Gwen Araujo -- killed in 2002 by three men who said she had deceived them into believing she was biologically female.

Champagne never knew the victim and only met her family after the slaying. But the anti-violence advocate wants every one of the details of the 17-year-old’s killing to become public. Her regular blog tracks developments in the East Bay trio’s retrial, which started last month and could continue all summer.

A program director for the San Francisco nonprofit group Community United Against Violence, Champagne calls this a different trial than the first one, which ended in a mistrial in 2004: “Last time, attorneys tried to drag Gwen’s character through the mud. But now there’s none of that trans-phobia and trans-ignorance because they know the jury won’t buy it.”

There’s indeed a changed atmosphere surrounding this second proceeding against Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, all 25. The three men, close friends and drinking cohorts who often called themselves “The Three Stooges,” face murder and hate-crime charges in the killing, which occurred early Oct. 4, 2002, inside a dingy tract house Merel shared with his two brothers.

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After a night of heavy partying, the men -- two of whom had previously had sex with Araujo -- confronted the teen about being biologically male. The victim, who lived and identified as a girl, assuming the first name of her favorite pop singer, Gwen Stefani, was then attacked. She was kicked and beaten with a soup can and iron skillet, smashed with a shovel and strangled with a rope.

At one point, Araujo -- whom the men knew as Lida -- was punched so hard in the face that a wall behind her head “indented and cracked,” according to court testimony.

Just before dawn, Araujo’s attackers buried her body in a forest in the Sierra foothills and went to a McDonald’s drive-through to order breakfast.

Since her death, Araujo has become a civil rights martyr among California’s widespread transgender community. Along with Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, and numerous family members, the trial in this bedroom community between San Francisco and San Jose is often attended by transgender observers, who circulate details via e-mails and blogs.

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The teen’s murder also helped persuade Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) to introduce a bill that would prohibit defendants from contending they were provoked to kill by discovering the victim’s disability, gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

The first time the case went to court, jurors deadlocked over whether the slaying was premeditated and therefore first-degree murder. Araujo’s accused killers had used the so-called deception defense.

“In the first trial, the defense tried to blame Gwen for her own death and people did not want to see that happen again with a retrial,” said Christopher Daley, director of San Francisco’s Transgender Law Center. “So you’re seeing a more coordinated response by activists -- the blogs, people e-mailing trial details back and forth and keeping on top of things. There’s a focused energy to ensure that justice is done.”

In the Bay Area alone, Daley estimated, there are thousands of residents who are “transsexual, cross-dressing or gender nonconforming.”

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Autumn Sandeen, a pre-op transsexual who is monitoring the trial from her San Diego home via the Internet, said Araujo embodies the violence and insults endured by transgender individuals nationwide.

“She was by no stretch a perfect person, no Rosa Parks,” Sandeen said. “But she was just acting as who she was, a precocious young teenage girl. She was a transsexual and she was killed for that.”

Sandeen, 46, a Gulf War veteran who served in the Navy, says that the Araujo case, if anything, needs to show Americans that “the deception defense is not valid, it’s not OK to kill someone just because you find out they’re a pre-op transsexual.”

Being a transsexual is not a deception, Sandeen said. “It’s as deceptive as dying your hair to cover the gray,” she said. “If you meet a woman on the street with augmented breasts, is that deception? Well, neither are we.”

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The first four weeks of the retrial, which started May 31, included testimony from Jaron Nabors, a fourth man at the home in suburban Newark on the night Araujo was killed. Nabors, 22, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, with a sentence of 11 years in prison, in exchange for testifying against the three suspects.

The trio are also expected to take the stand, a litany of testimony that lawyers predict will take the trial into August. They each could receive a sentence of life in prison.

For this new trial, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry R. Sheppard ordered attorneys not to speak to the media, eliminating the spin-control and grandstanding that sometimes goes on outside the courtroom, Champagne said.

And unlike the first trial, defense lawyers are referring to Araujo as female, as the activist notes, “calling Gwen ‘she,’ the way she always wanted.”

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The day after the first murder trial ended, Araujo’s mother legally changed her deceased child’s name from Edward Araujo Jr. to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo.

In proceedings last week, under direct examination by Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Lamiero, a woman who was at the East Bay home just before Araujo was killed detailed how angry some of the men became upon learning the teen was physically a male.

Wearing a short-sleeved blouse that revealed several tattoos, Nicole Brown told the jury that Magidson had taken Araujo into the bathroom to hike up her denim skirt and “check whether she was a man or a woman.”

When Araujo told Magidson she did not want him to touch her, Brown testified, she went into the bathroom and groped Araujo’s genitals, running from the room screaming.

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Matters further descended into chaos as Magidson punched and choked Araujo, who angered her attackers by threatening “to call the police,” Brown said.

As one of Araujo’s aunts and two other relatives watched with concerned looks on their faces, Brown described the last time she saw Araujo: the teen was cowering in the living room, bleeding from the face. Brown then left the house and went home, she testified.

The next day, Brown told the jury, she called Merel to ask what had become of Araujo and was told: “Let’s just say she had a long walk home.”

In her occasional blog, www.gwenaraujo.blogspot.com, which includes links to mainstream media coverage of the trial as well as to transgender support groups, Champagne tries to cut through the lawyers’ legal maneuverings.

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In one recent entry, she described how one defense attorney argued why several photographs of the murder scene should not be admitted into evidence.

The photos “are too gruesome ... will be prejudicial and have no probative value,” Champagne quoted one lawyer.

Then she elaborated for her readers: “The photos are what they are, and they reflect the brutality of the crime -- the savage beating and murder of a 17-year-old. Ultimately, the judge ruled that most of the photos would be admitted.”

Champagne said the Araujo case has prompted many more requests from Bay Area schools to invite transgender speakers from her organization.

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The activist has watched Araujo’s mother struggle to deal with her child’s death. Although Guerrero avoids the courtroom during some of the more graphic testimony, she embraced Brown one day after the woman apologized for Gwen’s death.

“That was an amazing thing for Sylvia to do,” Champagne said of the mother. “I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was her.”


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