Bittersweet justice: in the wake of the Gwen Araujo trial, activists are grimly aware of how difficult it is to obtain a first-degree murder conviction when the victim is transgender.
In the well-publicized Gwen Araujo case, two men were convicted of second-degree murder and each sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after a California jury refused to buy their "transgender panic" defense that they killed the teen in October 2002 due to the shock of discovering that she was biologically male. While the convictions did not include the first-degree murder or hate-crime enhancement charges sought by the prosecution, the verdicts are still seen as a victory because a murder conviction was obtained.
"The verdict was not perfect, but it's a lot more than we could have gotten in the past," admits Smith, who began tracking murders of transgender victims in the late 1990s.
Just 18 days before the Araujo verdict, there was a very different end to a similar case in Fresno, Calif.: Estanislao Martinez, having cited transgender panic and pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the killing of Joel Robles, a transgender woman he went home with and then killed after discovering she was biologically male, received a three-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, plus an additional year for using scissors as a weapon.
The disposition of this case has left Smith and other activists grimly aware once again of how difficult it is to obtain a first-degree murder conviction when a transgender person is killed. "There's still a lot of work to be done," says a frustrated Smith, herself a transgender woman. '"The Robles case shows that there are still issues. It's really important for all of us to stand up and say, 'It's not tight.'"
Smith will be doing just that on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which has grown from a candlelight vigil attended by fewer than 100 people in San Francisco's Castro District in 1999 to nearly 200 events held across the United States and in seven other countries.
Smith meticulously tracks every transgender murder she can get information on and posts their status on her Web site, RememberingOurDead.org. The number of murders that she lists has grown to almost 300, the earliest of which took place in 1972.
Fellow activist Ethan St. Pierre, whose transgender aunt, Debbie Forte, was brutally murdered in 1995, also tracks the cases in an effort to bring the situation to the forefront and cast light on the fact that many of these murders are unsolved, or that when suspects are prosecuted they are often convicted of a lesser charge that results in shorter jail sentences.
"My aunt had been strangled, every bone in her neck was broken, and she was beaten to the point where she was unrecognizable. Then she was stabbed three times in the heart. This guy had to leave her body to go find a knife, and they still wouldn't go for first-degree murder," recalls St. Pierre, who had the grim task of identifying his aunt's body. "Our lives just aren't seen as important as non-transgender people. It's really ingrained, and the prosecutors don't believe the jury will convict on first degree. That happened in the case of my aunt."
St. Pierre, himself a transgender man, says he counts seven murders of transgender people in his home state of Massachusetts since the 1970s; of those, he notes that arrests were made in only two cases, each as a result of the killers turning themselves in.
There remains a widespread reluctance by prosecutors to file first-degree murder charges or hate-crime enhancements in transgender murder cases, activists say. In rare cases like that of Araujo where they did go for the most severe charges, juries have not bought it.
"There is something significant with Gwen in that somewhere in this country this year, there was a jury that bought the argument that killing a transgender person was absolutely wrong," says Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
"Still, even though some states have hate-crimes laws, what happens after the laws are passed is that [law enforcement] often doesn't have a strategy for actually making the law successful. Oftentimes they go for the underlying charge and forget about the hate crime because they aren't comfortable in their ability to get a jury to believe or understand."
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Lisa Mottet can't recall a single transgender murder case in the United States in which a prosecutor was successful in getting a jury to convict with a hate-crime enhancement, as the Araujo case demonstrated once again. This happens even though 10 states--California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Vermont--and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly include crimes motivated by gender identity in their definition of hate crimes. The U.S. House of Representatives in September also passed some long-stalled legislation that would add gender identity--based attacks to the federal hate-crimes definition.
"These statewide laws mean that there can be enhanced sentences and that it can be prosecuted as a hate crime," says Mottet, a legislative lawyer for NGLTF's Transgender Civil Rights Project. "We certainly believe Gwen's killing was a hate crime, and it's important that we have these discussions so that society can hear more about transgender people and what they face in order to get to the point where society thinks that it's outrageous."
Araujo's aunt Imelda Guerrero is bitterly upset not to have gotten a hate-crime conviction and is frustrated that the jury deadlocked on the third defendant, Jason Cazares. A fourth suspect, Jarou Nabors, agreed to testify against the three defendants and in exchange received an 11-year prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
Guerrero and other family members attended nearly every day of the second trial this summer, made necessary after the jury in the original trial could not agree on a first-degree murder conviction. "We just assumed the hate crime was obvious," Guerrero says. "The events that happened were the result of Gwen having male genitalia. Had she not been transgender, she would not have been murdered."
What has made the Araujo murder particularly noteworthy is the activism undertaken by her family, who have been front and center in discussing the murder, speaking of their deep love for Gwen and their determination to obtain justice.
"A lot of people don't think about the families of these victims and how they are impacted," says Vanessa Edwards Foster, chairwoman of the board of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. "The Araujo family has been phenomenal in stepping up to the plate and putting a face on this. Having the family stand up and be such strong advocates, addressing these issues and bringing them to the public forum, has made a world of difference for us in the transgender and activist community. It's very easy for people to objectify a transgender person, but when a family stands up and says, 'This is my child,' that catches someone's ear."
Just a few of the murders of transgender Americans since Brandon Teena's killing in 1993
November 20, 1995: Chanelle Pickett is killed in Boston. Suspect William Palmer is acquitted of murder and sentenced to 2 1/2 years for assault and battery.
May 15, 1995: Haverhill, Mass., resident Debbie Forte is murdered after a man takes her home and finds she's biologically male, The accused, Michael Thompson, plea-bargains to second-degree murder, getting 15 years to life in prison.
August 18, 1998: New Yorker Fitzroy "Jamaica" Green is stabbed 26 times; suspect Eric Carolina is later found not guilty of murder.
November 28, 1998: Rita Hester is found stabbed to death in her Brighton, Mass., apartment. No suspects.
March 30, 1999: Tracey Thompson is beaten to death with a baseball bat in Wilcox County, Ga. No suspects.
February 21, 2003: Nikki Nicholas is found shot to death in Green Oak Township, Mich. No suspects.
May 9, 2003: Jessica Mercado is found murdered in her burned New Haven, Conn., apartment. No suspects.
July 23, 2003: Transgender woman Nireah Johnson and her friend Brandie Coleman are gunned down execution-style in Indianapolis; Paul Moore is convicted and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
August 16, 2003: Bella Evangelista is shot and killed in Washington, D.C.; Antoine D. Jacobs pleads guilty to second-degree murder and awaits sentencing. Emonie Kiera Spaulding is found murdered in D.C. four days later; Derrick Antwan Lewis gets 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
August 24, 2005: Estanislao Martinez is sentenced to four years for killing Joel Robles in Fresno, Calif.
Hernandez is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Nov 22, 2005|
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