California Seeks to End Gay-Panic Defense

PanicIn 2005, a transgender woman in Fresno was stabbed to death, but the defendant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to only four years. In the trial of cross-dressing gay teenager Larry King‘s killer in Oxnard in 2011, the defendant wound up pleading guilty to second-degree murder (instead of the more-deserved first-degree murder). In both of these cases, the defendants used a gay- or trans-panic defense.

California Assemblymember Susan Bonilla has authored a bill, AB 2501, that would render the so-called gay-panic defense inadmissible when employed to lower a charge from murder to manslaughter, defend against an assault or other lesser charge or avoid conviction completely. According to Equality California, an organization that is cosponsoring the bill (along with Attorney General Kamala D. Harris), a panic defense:

Allows a criminal defendant to claim that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity provoked their violent reaction, signaling that violence against the LGBT community is understandable or acceptable.

The bill itself clearly explains how absurd these defenses are and how unjust it is that they actually work:

These cases illustrate how panic defenses have been successfully employed to take advantage of stereotypes and biases and as a result, obscure justice.

American Bar Association-affiliated group LGBT Bar is also lobbying to ban the panic defense; according to their website, the American Bar Association has already approved a resolution calling for a ban:

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, tribal, state, local and territorial governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses, which seek to partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.

Thankfully, it appears as if the movement to end this absurd, harmful, but currently admissible defense is picking up steam. Let us hope that no more violent offenders get to walk free or receive reduced sentences simply because of their homophobia.

Photo courtesy of TranceMist via Creative Commons 2.0

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Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an intern for Ms. Follow her on Twitter: @though_she_be.

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