July 13, 2018
Democrats File Bill To Outlaw 'Gay Panic' Defense

According to The Advocate, Congressional Democrats have filed a bill to outlaw the use of the "gay panic" defense.

The "gay panic" defense has previously been used in court to either acquit or give lighter sentences to assailants of LGBT people, because their identity caused the assailant to "panic" at the time.

Introduced by Senator Edward Markey and U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy III, the Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act would outlaw the "gay panic" or "trans panic" defense as a legal defense in federal court.

Representative Kennedy told the Washington Blade on Friday, "Legal loopholes written into our laws that seek to justify violent attacks against our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender neighbors should never have existed in the first place," adding that it "is not a defense, it is a hate crime."

Markey commented, "Gay and trans panic legal defenses reflect an irrational fear and bigotry toward the LGBTQ community and corrode the legitimacy of federal prosecutions. These defenses must be prohibited to ensure that all Americans are treated with dignity and humanity in our justice system."

The murder of Matthew Shepard was the last most renown case in which this defense was used. After Shepard was beaten and killed in 1998, his attackers claimed to have suffered "a moment of "insanity" when Shepard allegedly flirted with them at a bar.

Just this year, the "gay panic" defense was used in Texas to reduce the sentence of James Miller, who killed his neighbor back in 2015 for allegedly trying to kiss him. Instead of being charged with murder or manslaughter, Miller was sentenced to six months in prison and 10 years of probation for criminally negligent homicide.

Joe Kennedy
Getty Images | Slaven Vlasic

The Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act would only apply to federal courts, leaving state courts to continue to allow "gay panic" to be used as a legal defense. However, California, Illinois, and Rhode Island have already banned the defense from being used in their state courts.

In a letter to Markey, the American Bar Association expressed their support, saying, "These defenses have no place in either our society or justice system and should be legislated out of existence."

If passed, the bill "would still allow courts to admit evidence of prior trauma to the defendant to justify their conduct or mitigate the severity of the offense," but would also require "the U.S. attorney general to submit to Congress an annual report of federal court prosecutions of hate crimes committed against LGBT people.