Victory in Hayward
One thing was clear when the jury came back this week with second degree murder convictions against Micheal Magidson and Jose Merel for killing Gwen Araujo -- transgender panic strategies have no traction in Bay Area courtrooms.
Two juries in two years proved this by repudiating aggressive and ethically debatable arguments that Gwen, as a transgender teen, was responsible for her own murder. The take-home message for defense attorneys around the country is: relying on a juror’s bias against transgender people will get your clients no reprieve from being held accountable for the violence they commit against transgender people. For that reason alone, Tuesday’s verdicts have to be seen as a huge victory.
Some community members are disappointed that the jury didn’t convict either Magidson or Merel of a hate crime and were unable to agree on the culpability of Jason Cazares. Hopefully, this disappointment doesn’t overshadow the victories that this case has produced over the last three years. This is one of those moments in a community’s lifespan when it is especially important to look for the big picture and not let the failure to get the outcome we wanted diminish the outcomes we did get.
No group of people has accomplished as much over the last three years as Gwen’s family and friends. Sylvia, Imelda, David, Delilah, Tina, Pearl, and literally dozens of others have provided us with a vivid example of the powerful role that our families play in advancing LGBT civil rights. Each time one of these folks speaks out, they do more to protect transgender people than I can in a month at my job at the Transgender Law Center.
At the same time, the Alameda County District Attorney’s office has set a new standard for prosecuting transgender murder cases. You don’t have to look any further than Fresno County to see what the standard still is in many DA’s offices. Last month, a Fresno County DA accepted a four year plea bargain for a person who confessed to stabbing and killing a transgender person. In stark contrast, the Alameda DA’s office devoted their office’s full resources to this case not once, but twice. Along the way, they faced and beat down some of the most egregious uses of transgender panic tactics that many of us hope to ever see in a courtroom.
This year, we also saw media coverage that had once been sensationalistic and oftentimes disrespectful of Gwen’s identity evolve into coverage that correctly identified the defendant’s as the people on trial (not Gwen) and their actions as the thing being judged (not Gwen’s identity). This evolution is not limited to Bay Area print, broadcast, and internet journalists. I’ve spoken with journalists from around the U.S. who have said that the coverage of this case has sparked dialogues and changes in their newsrooms as well.
Finally, to be clear, two men have been convicted of crimes that carry a potential for life sentences. Neither of these men is likely to leave prison any time before 2035, if they are ever allowed to leave. A third man, the one who made it possible for Gwen’s family to recover her body, will soon begin serving an 11 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. And, if the community keeps the pressure on, Jason Cazares will be held accountable, at least in part, for his actions that night.
Of course none of these victories erases the fact that, for many of us, Gwen would be alive if she were a non-transgender woman. For some, that fact eloquently ends the analysis of whether a hate crime was committed. The jury in this case had a different charge, though. They had to apply the evidence presented to them, evidence that was spread out over a two month trial and that often conflicted with itself, to the hate crime law. Everyone I know who attended the trial more than a couple of times is convinced that this jury took their charge seriously and dedicated themselves to reaching a just conclusion in this case. I have to believe that in the final analysis, that is what we got – a just verdict.
In assault cases or other crimes where the number of years a person will serve in prison are modest, a hate crimes conviction can serve as a deterrent to future offenders. However, in a murder trial, such deterrent is less important. In fact, I’m hard pressed to understand what serves as a better deterrent than two second degree murder convictions. And the victory of getting these convictions shouldn’t be lessened simply because they were not accompanied by hate crimes convictions.
I know that it is tempting to give in to disappointment. Our communities have plenty of examples to prove that we aren’t valued or respected in the same way that non-LGBT people are. I just don’t believe the result in this case is one of those examples. And I believe that celebrating these victories, even if they feel incomplete, is a necessary step in the maturing of a civil rights movement dedicated to equal treatment and fairness under the law.
Christopher Daley is the Director of the Transgender Law Center. In 2004, he represented Gwen Araujo’s mother in her efforts to get court recognition of Gwen’s change of name.