The Murder of Gwen Araujo and The “Panic” Defense

gwen araujo killed

Content warning: discussion of transphobic and homophobic violence.

On October 3, 2002, Gwen Araujo was murdered at a party in Newark California. The four killers, Michael Magidson, Jaron Chase Nabors, Jose Merel, and an unnamed fourth man, buried her body near Silver Lake campground, more than 150 miles away in El Dorado County. Although four were arrested, more at the party could have intervened to stop the murder and did not. 

Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, buried her daughter under her chosen name, Gwen. The funeral, held October 25 in Newark, was open to the public. Guerrero released 17 butterflies, one for each year of Araujo’s life. Many came out to mourn the loss, but anti-transgender protesters were also in attendance. Students from Newark High School wore angel costumes to help block the family from protesters. 

For Araujo, living as an out transgender teen at the time was difficult. It was important to Araujo to be true to herself, but met with adversity at both high schools she attended. News articles about her death misgendered her repeatedly, an issue that prevails in the press today. Gwen was an inspiration to many trans youth in her community. Her horrific death also inspired multiple films, including a Lifetime dramatization and a 2007 documentary by a trans director.

During the Araujo trial, defendants invoked a “panic” defense, which attempted to excuse crimes like murder and assault by blaming one’s actions on a heat of passion, mental breakdown or self-defense.

This approach ultimately failed for defendants in Araujo’s case, but panic defenses have historically downgraded the severity of criminal consequences, including reducing charges of murder to manslaughter or even assault and battery.

While the exact number of times this defense has been used against members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t clear, it has long been utilized by straight men attempting to justify and minimize the killing of gay men, dating as far back as a 1954 murder in Florida to a 2019 homicide in Santa Clara.

Arguably one of the most infamous, yet unsuccessful, uses of the gay panic defense followed the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Advocates argue that this defense blames victims, thereby insinuating that violence against the LGBTQ community is not only understandable but accepted.

State legislators attempted to remedy this with the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. Passed in September 2006, the bill required informing members of a jury that they were forbidden from making decisions based on any victim’s gender or sexual orientation.

Those protections were often circumvented, including in 2008 when 15-year-old Lawrence King, also known as Latisha, was shot and later died after flirting with another boy at his school near Los Angeles.

Restrictions were placed on defendants themselves in October 2014, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2501 into law, which banned panic defenses in criminal court entirely.

California became the first state to outlaw blaming victims’ sexual orientation or gender for violence committed against them. Also in 2014, Brown signed off on the Respect After Death Act, which requires that death certificates represent the deceased person’s documented gender expression.

As of 2020, only 11 states have banned the defense, but nine others have introduced legislation. Attempts at federal law outlawing LGBTQ+ panic defenses were introduced in 2018 and 2019, but ultimately failed to move forward.

1985: Fatal Police Shooting of Melvin Truss Sparked Public Outcry

The fatal police shooting of Black teen Melvin Truss sparked public outcry as many called into question the conduct of the officer responsible for his death and the handling of the case by the grand jury, law enforcement and city officials.

SJPD’s version of events

On May 4, 1985, San Jose police officer Paul Ewing was on duty in the Street Crimes Unit, wearing civilian clothes and driving an unmarked police car. Around 6:45 pm, Ewing claimed he saw Melvin Truss dressed in women’s clothes and jewelry, soliciting drivers at Second and San Carlos streets, according to a city memo authored by San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara.

Truss approached Ewing’s car and asked if he was looking for a date, the memo continued. Ewing drove Truss first to a Highway 280 overpass, then to San Jose Bible College, and finally to Olinder School.

According to McNamara’s memo, Truss then began to act agitated and took a steak knife out of a rolled-up windbreaker on his lap, demanding Ewing’s money. Ewing said he distracted Truss and drew his .357 magnum service revolver, pointing it at Truss in hopes that he would retreat. As Truss came toward him, Ewing fired five rounds and jumped out of the car without any injuries.

Truss was transported to San Jose Hospital, where he died at 9:05 pm the same night, according to records from the Human Relations Commission of the County of Santa Clara. He was 17.

(It should be noted that Truss weighed 115 pounds while Ewing was 6’1″ and weighed 200 pounds.)

Public uproar followed as community members and Truss’s family disputed police accounts. While a police spokesman labelled Truss a “transvestite,” Our Paper reported that advocates denounced police for waging a slander campaign against Truss.

A community fights back

Family and friends knew Truss as a shy but polite kid, a fan of Michael Jackson, Metro reported. “Melvin was the kind of person anyone could read like a book. By that I mean he did not carry any false pretenses” said Sharon Youngblood in a statement to Santa Clara County’s Human Relations Commission. Youngblood, a business instructor at James Lick High School who knew Truss for over two years, also noted: “You could look into his eyes and read his ‘soul.’”

Constance Carpenter, a lawyer with the Attorneys Committee on Police Practices, pointed out to the Human Relations Commission that police attempted to find the rest of Truss’s set of steak knives but found no matches.

In addition, in an attempt to try to identify him as an armed robbery suspect, the police pulled 380 reports of armed robberies, grand thefts, and aggravated assaults in the city, Carpenter detailed: 66 cases were investigated further and none of the victims identified Truss as the suspect, according to Carpenter’s statement to the commission.

A grand jury voted in May 1985 not to indict Ewing for fatally shooting Truss. Ewing returned to regular duty.

After the grand jury result, Laura White, an aunt who helped raise Truss, told the Mercury News: “If this is allowed to stand, the people in San Jose and this society had better watch out. Because every month, these trigger-happy police officers who have taken the oath to preserve and protect are going to be dropping people in the street right and left.”

Despite calls for an independent citizens committee to investigate the shooting, in June 1985 the San Jose City Council voted against the proposal after nearly two hours of testimony from attorneys, friends of Truss, and several police officers. According to the Mercury News, one of Truss’ classmates testified that Truss would never hurt anyone, “especially someone older than him and a lot bigger than him.”

During the council meeting, police in full uniform lined the walls of city hall, opposing the proposed independent investigation, according to Metro reports. White was especially angered by Assistant Police Chief Stan Horton, who said Truss “died because of his lifestyle.”

The legacy of Truss’s death

“No one will ever know what really happened at the time of the shooting,” stated Ken Yeager, a spokesperson for BAYMEC, said at the time “But it isn’t difficult to imagine the circumstances that created the situation in the first place, nor the attitudes of the policeman involved. This is what we find very frightening.”

“Our focus now is to call attention to the fact that police in San Jose seem to believe anyone who might be Lesbian or Gay is a criminal or in the process of committing a crime, notably solicitation or prostitution,” said Wiggsy Sivertsen, BAYMEC’s vice-president. “The ramifications of this are enormous.”

Upon request from BAYMEC, the San Jose City Council approved a program in June 1985 through which San Jose police officers would receive training on gay and lesbian lifestyle. The move was met by opposition from the police, as reported in the Mercury News. The training was done by Sivertsen,

Responding to community concerns, the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission held a public hearing in August 1985. Youngblood, an advisor for James Lick’s Black Student Union, recalled the time when Truss participated in the group’s fall fashion show.

“He was scared to death on that stage and it was written all over his face, but he knew it was for a worthwhile cause and it was exciting for him too,” Youngblood told the commission. “Melvin was not capable of violence.”

In 1989, a federal jury cleared officer Paul Ewing of violating Truss’ civil rights in a civil suit brought by Truss’s mother.

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