General Crime

Appeals Court Upholds Convictions for the Murder of Gwen Araujo

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A state appeals court in San Francisco today upheld the second-degree murder convictions of two East Bay men in the slaying of a transgender Newark teenager in 2002. Michael Magidson, 28, of Fremont, and Jose Merel, 29, of Newark, were among four men convicted in Alameda County Superior Court in the beating and strangulation death of 17-year-old Gwen Araujo at Merel’s house in Newark in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2002.

The other two men, Jaron Nabors, 26, and Jason Cazares, 29, both of Newark, pleaded guilty or no contest to voluntary manslaughter charges.  Araujo, whose real name was Eddie and who was known to the men as Lida, was biologically male but had dressed and presented herself as a girl since she was 14. She was killed by being hit with a food can and a frying pan and being choked when the four men, after an evening of drinking, discovered she was a male.

Araujo had been socializing with them for four months and had had sexual encounters with both Magidson and Merel, the court said. Magidson and Merel were convicted of second degree murder in 2005 and sentenced the following year to 15 years to life.  About two weeks after the slaying, Nabors led investigators to a shallow grave in the El Dorado County wilderness east of Placerville where the four men had buried Araujo’s bound body.  In a plea bargain, Nabors pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for testifying against the other three men. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison as part of the plea agreement.

Cazares pleaded no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge after the jury in the 2005 trial could not reach a verdict in his case. He was sentenced to six years in prison. In today’s ruling, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal rejected Magidson’s and Merel’s claims that their trial was unfair because of errors in jury instructions and comments by the prosecutor. Magidson’s attorney in the appeal, Mark Greenberg, said he plans to appeal further to the California Supreme Court. Greenberg said, “I’m disappointed. I think the jury was not instructed correctly.” 

Deputy Alameda County District Attorney Chris Lamiero, the prosecutor in the case, said, “I’m pleased the Court of Appeal believed the jury made the right decision.”  The jury instruction dispute concerned the wording used to tell jurors about the standard for a possible finding that the killing was committed in the “heat of passion” and therefore could be considered the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. Magidson’s defense lawyer at the trial had sought to argue that Araujo provoked the four men into the killing because she deceived them about her gender.

Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard told jurors that the standard for heat-of-passion manslaughter was whether a defendant’s reasoning was disturbed by passion to an extent that would cause an ordinarily reasonable person to act rashly.  The two men claimed in the appeal that the wording should have been whether an ordinarily reasonable person would have been “liable” to act rashly, not whether such a person would act rashly.  But the appeals court said the wording used at the trial had essentially been approved by the California Supreme Court in four other cases and was not “an incorrect statement of the law.”

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