Legislators in New Jersey have advanced a bill banning gay and trans “panic” defenses in murder cases. All 73 members of the assembly voted in favor of the bill on Monday, November 25. No senate vote has been scheduled yet.
Currently in New Jersey, murder charges can be reduced to manslaughter if the killing is done “in the heat of passion” following “reasonable provocation.” If passed, Assembly Bill 1796 would prevent defendants from claiming they were provoked to kill upon learning the victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
The difference of the charge is stark: If a defendant is found guilty of manslaughter, they would face five to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $150,000. Murder is punishable by up to life in prison and a fine of $200,000.
“The ‘gay panic’ or ‘trans panic’ defense is not a freestanding defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic,” Assembly member and bill co-sponsor John McKeon told the Essex News Daily. “Whether the person was gay, transgender, or heterosexual, sexual orientation should not have any bearing on determining a person’s guilt in a murder trial. It is prejudiced against the [LGBTQ+] community.”
New Jersey would join eight other states, including Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Rhode Island, in banning the defense. The American Bar Association has endorsed efforts to ban gay “panic” defense nationwide, saying the legal argument is “playing on prejudice.”
Assemblymember and bill co-sponsor Joann Downey agrees, telling the Essex News Daily that “gay panic” defenses are really thinl veiled attempts to legitimize violence against LGBTQ+ people.
“This bill is a major step forward in addressing discrimination in our court system, and showing New Jersey’s [LGBTQ+] community that we stand with them in solidarity against any type of discrimination and hatred,” she said. “It is long past time that we ended this dark chapter in American legal history.”
State organizers hailed the progress on the bill, with Garden State Equality board member Michele Jaker telling the local news station NJTV that the defense amounts to “legal malpractice.”
“Nobody should ever be excused for murder because their victim is either gay or transgender,” Jaker said. “When you have an attorney whose client is being accused of murder, you will look for any defense that can be used. So we would like to see it off the books.”
Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate in New Jersey, and Governor Phil Murphy is a Democrat as well. The bill, which was first introduced in 2014 but languished for a half-decade under Republican Chris Christie’s governorship, is now expected to win easy passage.
There’s no word on when the Senate might vote on the bill, but it’s likely to occur early in 2020. It’s been awaiting a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee since May 2019.