The Murder of Gwen Araujo and The “Panic” Defense

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.