New York ends ‘gay panic defense’ in murder cases
The state of New York has become the sixth in the US to ban the “gay panic defense” in murder cases that defendants use to justify attacks on LGBTQ victims.
The ban was passed by the state legislature during Pride month and days before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.
New York and the ‘gay panic defense’
The “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense is the claim that an accused assailant had acted in a “temporary state of insanity” when attacking a gay or transgender person.
This defense has helped acquit dozens of accused killers, the most recent being in April 2018, according to the LGBT Bar (or the National LGBT Bar Association).
In New York, a 2013 case involved James Dixon attacking a transgender woman, Islan Nettles, that resulted in her death. Dixon said he had been flirting with Nettles and became angry when he realized she transgender woman
When his friends mocked him, Dixon killed Nettles. Pleading guilty to manslaughter, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
“With the enactment of this measure we are sending this noxious legal defense strategy to the dustbin of history where it belongs,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Twitter.
“This is an important win for LGBTQ people everywhere,” said Cuomo, who is expected to sign the legislation.
Rolling out the ban of ‘gay panic defense’
New York follows California, Illinois, Connecticut, Nevada, and Rhode Island in banning the defense. Several other state legislatures are also considering following in their steps.
Democrats Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts had tried to push ban on the defenses last year at the federal level. However, the bills died in committee.
In New York, the bill was introduced by state assembly member Daniel J. O’Donnell and state senator Brad Hoylman. Both lawmakers are gay.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity should never be used as excuses for violence and the very nature of gay and trans panic defenses ground themselves in bigotry, hatred, or fear toward the LGBTQ community,” said O’Donnell in an emailed statement.
“I’m glad that New York is sending a message to prosecutors, to defense attorneys, juries and judges that a victim’s LGBTQ identity can’t be weaponized,” Hoylman told the New York Times.
In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports 52 hate-related murders of LGBTQ people, particularly among transgender women of color.
The reasoning behind the defense tactic
In 2013, the American Bar Association had passed a resolution calling for the state governments to ban the defense.
However, the public became first aware of the term “gay panic” with the murder of 21-year old Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The killers of Shepherd claimed the victim had “come unto” one of them.
Meanwhile, “transgender panic” gained prominence with the murder of Gwen Araujo in Newark, California in 2004. This case eventually led to California to ban the defense.
According to the LGBT Bar, the defense “is not a free-standing defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic used to bolster other defenses.”
“By fully or partially acquitting the perpetrators of crimes against LGBTQ+ victims, this defense implies that LGBTQ+ lives are worth less than others,” they said.
The LGBT Bar uses the term “LGBTQ+ panic” defense as a more inclusive phrasing, given that the defense strategy is not used solely against men who are or assumed to be gay.