Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sudden justice in the murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado

It's not a moment to rejoice. Jorge Steven López Mercado's life was taken way in the most brutal of ways for being gay.  But when news reached this morning me that Juan José Martínez Matos had pleaded guilty for his murder and that a Puerto Rican judge had sentenced him to 99 years in prison, I couldn't think about anything but the image above.

It's Jorge Steven's mom, Myriam Mercado, and my friend Pedro Julio Serrano doing the 'Spock-hand-over-the-eye' thingie that was Jorge Steven's signature pose when he was alive (see image below). Pedro Julio, who works at the NYC office of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, had traveled to Puerto Rico after hearing about the horrible crime and quickly gained the family's trust and confidence as he advised them how to navigate issues related to Jorge Steven's murder.

My friend and journalist Mike Lavers, who has done an amazing job of following the developments in the case, was the first person to run an English-language report on this morning's guilty plea. From his EDGE article:
Juan José Martínez Matos, who had been scheduled to go on trial for Jorge Steven López Mercado’s death on Monday, May 17, confessed to the crime during a hearing in Caguas on Wednesday, May 12.

Martínez told the court he understood the consequences of his actions, and Judge Miriam Camila Jusino immediately sentenced him to 99 years in prison.

Primera Hora reported López’s parents, Myriam Mercado and Jorge López, hugged prosecutor Yaritza Carrasquillo after the hearing. Mercado told the newspaper, however, Martínez’s confession was bittersweet for her and her family.

"We are able to find a bit of peace in this aspect, but it still not going to return Steven," she said. "But at least there is justice in Puerto Rico."
Tonight the Associated Press posted the following (via The Miami Herald's Steve Rothaus):
A man accused of decapitating a gay teenager and burning his body pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Wednesday and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

The case had gained national attention because activists demanded that U.S. authorities prosecute it as a hate crime, with supporters holding vigils in a dozen cities including New York and Los Angeles.

Police said Juan Martinez Matos, 26, told them he hated homosexuals but that he had offered the victim cocaine in exchange for sex.

The body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found in November along a rural road in the southeastern mountain town of Cayey. Lopez was well known as a volunteer for organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights.
The Task Force also released a statement this evening quoting Pedro Julio:
This was a brutal crime, and today's developments have been very emotional for Jorge Steven's family and friends, as well as to the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Puerto Rico. While the guilty plea and sentencing bring some closure, these wounds will never heal for those who knew and loved Jorge Steven.

Yet, despite how heart-wrenching this has all been, Jorge Steven's family has been so loving and strong; they have been and continue to be a symbol of love conquering hate. This has inspired me and so many others in our work to keep this from happening again.
I was always amazed at how Jorge Steven's murder drew such a huge response. From singer Ricky Martin's plea for acceptance, months before he came out, to the protests that happened, mostly through Facebook, in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Queer bloggers in the United States also had a big role in responding to the murder and asking for justice.  Tonight, a few are also responding to the day's news including Towleroad, Joe.My.God., Queerty, and Rod2.0.

The most moving response tonight? That of Jorge Steven's parents as they left the court today...

Some people who have left comments on other blogs have taken an issue with Jorge Steven's father and his words of forgiveness towards his son's murderer, particularly as he frames forgiveness in pure religious terms.  Some say that someone who did what they did to Jorge Steven does not deserve forgiveness while others see, in his words, a veiled rejection of his son's gayness (he talks, after all, about all of us being sinners and making "mistakes" for which only God can forgive us).

Not being a religious person myself, I just see a man who is deeply religious, yes, but who obviously also loved his son deeply. A man who is trying to come to terms with the fact that he is gone. And a man, who, despite what others may say, is still standing next to his wife and family in demanding justice for his son. I wonder if he was truly aware that his son was gay before Jorge Steven died or if he was forced to confront his son's sexuality only after the news of his murder appeared on television.

Ms. Mercado, on the other hand, has spoken publicly in the past of knowing her son was gay and letting Jorge Steven know that her love was unconditional, regardless of his sexuality.  You might remember this amazing video from November, days after her son was murdered, thanking people worldwide for their support in such difficult times.

I remember crying when I first saw this.  I was in awe of Ms. Mercado. At a time when anger moved so many people to organize protests worldwide demanding justice for her son, here was his mom appealing to our better angels, as they say (in some way, now that I think of it, it is a similar message to that of Jorge Steven's father, without the religious connotations).

And now there is a guilty plea and a sentence of 99 years in jail. And, best of all, no trial.  As someone who has lost friends to homophobic violence, I know how tough the trial process can be on family members of those who are murdered and, in this case, Jorge Steven's family will not have to endure any defense attorney arguments claiming that their client was insane when he killed Jorge Steven, or that he panicked when he found out he was gay, or, worse still, try to blame Jorge Steven for what happened to him.

It must have been such a bitter-sweet day for Jorge Steven's family. A plea, a quick sentence and this stage of the process was suddenly over.  But now a need to move on and deal with the fact that Jorge Steven is still gone.  My love goes to them.

One last thought tonight: The brutality of Jorge Steven's murder has always held parallels, in my mind, with the murder of Rashawn Brazell in Brooklyn on February of 2005.  As in Jorge Steven's case, Rashawn's body was found dismembered.  And, as in Jorge Steven's case, the strongest voice out there asking for justice is Rashawn's mom, Desiré. That murder, unlike the murder of Jorge Steven, remains unresolved. And Desiré remains in my thoughts tonight even as I am glad that there was justice today when it comes to Jorge Steven.

Additional info...  Calle 13 singer René Perez and Denise Quiñones, Miss Universe 2001, at the vigil that took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Nov. 25th, 2009...

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