Washington D.C. could join eight states in banning so-called “LGBTQ panic” defense.
That’s thanks to a bill introduced by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, a Democrat who previously campaigned for marriage equality in the district. If the bill known as the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019” passes, defendants would be prevented from claiming they committed violent crimes out of self-defense after learning their victim was queer or transgender.
“It is unacceptable for bigots to claim panic as a defense, as if the victim was at fault for the bias-related crime,” Mendelson said, as the Fox affiliate WTTG first reported.
The bill specifically blocks defendants in criminal cases from citing “heat of passion” as justification for acts of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, even if the victim “made an unwanted, non-forcible romantic or sexual advance toward the defendant.” It also specifies that learning that a person is a member of the LGBTQ+ community does not cause a person to “suffer from reduced mental capacity based solely on the discovery.”
“We as a government must do all that we can to protect populations whose very existence can be taken advantage of,” Mendelson said.
A competing version of the legislation, introduced by Council member David Grosso, expands those protections to cover not just gender identity and sexual orientation but also classifications like race, religion, and disability.
According to the National LGBT Bar Association, a queer legal group that leads efforts to ban “LGBTQ panic” defenses across the country, the practice is currently banned in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New York, Nevada, and Rhode Island at the time of writing.
“When a perpetrator uses an LGBTQ+ panic defense, they are claiming that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity not only explains—but excuses—a loss of self-control and the subsequent assault,” the organization explains. “By fully or partially acquitting the perpetrators of crimes against LGBTQ+ victims, this defense implies that LGBTQ+ lives are worth less than others.”
The strategy gained wider public awareness following the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. During the trial, his killers claimed they acted out of self-defense upon learning Shepard was gay, beating him and tying him to a fence to die.
But that’s far from the only time the “panic defense” has been employed. In 2015, Daniel Spencer’s neighbor, Robert Miller, stabbed him to death, claiming that Spencer had sexual made advances on him. A court accepted the justification, reducing his conviction from murder to criminally negligent manslaughter.
In 2013, Steven Torres stabbed Ever Orozco to death in Queens, then later claimed in court that the victim was flirting with him. Five years later, a teen named Brandon McInerney shot classmate Larry King in the head after King asked him to be his valentine. McInerney’s lawyers claimed King’s behavior amounted to sexual harassment and he could not be held responsible, but a court disagreed. McInerney is currently serving 21 years behind bars.
Even despite efforts to ban “panic defenses,” it remains legal in 42 states. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is also running for president, has introduced legislation to outlaw the practice federally, but it has yet to become law.