Dems Introduce Bill to Outlaw Anti-LGBTQ Panic Defense in Federal Court

Rep. Joe Kennedy and Sen. Ed Markey want to put an end to the panic defense as legal cover for anti-LGBTQ violence.

Massachusetts Democrats Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Sen. Ed Markey have introduced legislation that would ban the use of the panic defense in federal court as a legal justification for anti-LGBTQ violence.

The pair introduced the bill, called the Gay & Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act, in the House and Senate respectively.

Kennedy told the Washington Blade that claiming anti-LGBTQ animus caused a violent outburst “is not a defense, it is a hate crime.”

“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,” he added.

Markey said a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity “cannot ever excuse violence, and our courtrooms should not be used as chambers of hate.”

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

While the bill, if it becomes law, would outlaw the use of the defense in federal courts, it would not prevent its use in state courts. To date, only three states have outlawed the defense: California, Illinois, and Rhode Island.

Earlier this year, a man in Texas, James Miller, used the defense to gain a lighter sentence, claiming the man he stabbed to death, Daniel Spencer, had come onto him.

Miller was sentenced for criminally negligent homicide, a less serious charge than murder or manslaughter, and a jury recommended he receive 10 years probation. Judge Brad Urrutia added six months jail time and community service to the sentence, as well as ordering him to pay $11,000 in restitution to the victim’s family.

A man on death row in Ohio, Robert Van Hook, attempted to use the defense to get a stay of execution, which the state’s Supreme Court denied. Van Hook strangled and stabbed 25-year-old David Self to death in Cincinnati, in 1985, before stealing some of his belongings and fleeing. He is scheduled to be executed on July 18.

A Massachusetts teen is also claiming “gay panic” motivated him to allegedly hold a man hostage for days, beating him while shouting an anti-gay slur.

The American Bar Association, which in 2013 unanimously approved a resolution calling for an end to the use anti-LGBT panic defense in court, sent a letter to Markey expressing its support of the proposed legislation.

“These defenses have no place in either our society or justice system and should be legislated out of existence,” it reads.

Journalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose work has appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing, and more.