Metro Weekly

Rhode Island House votes to ban “gay and trans panic” defenses for violent crimes

Lawmakers vote 68-2 to prevent defendants from using a victim's LGBTQ status to argue for less severe punishments

Rhode Island State House – Photo: John Phelan, via Wikimedia.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation that bars jurors from considering “gay or trans panic” as a legal defense for violent acts.

The bill passed 68-2, with bipartisan support, reports The Providence Journal. The two dissenting votes were cast by Rep. James McLaughlin (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Justin Price (R-Richmond).

As written, the bill states that “a person is not justified in using force against another based on the discovery of, knowledge about or potential disclosure of the victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.”

The bill also clarifies that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be used to justify a defendant’s disproportionate violent action, even if the victim made an “unwanted non-forcible romantic or sexual advance” towards the defendant.

Price, who has previously spoken out against the legislation, and was the only person to do so on the floor, has argued that jurors need to be able to consider all facts of a case — including a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity and a defendant’s discomfort around LGBTQ people — before passing judgment.

The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, whose members are generally more ideologically conservative than their House counterparts. It it passes the Senate, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is expected to sign it into law.

Typically, defendants who attempt to utilize “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses will say they were provoked by a victim’s advances and claim either self-defense or “diminished mental capacity” in order to sway jurors into finding them not guilty, or recommending a less severe sentence should they be found culpable for the crime.

Sometimes, judges don’t allow such defenses to be used in courtrooms. But outside of California and Illinois, there’s no law explicitly prohibiting the use of such defenses. And even if a judge eventually rules against using the tactic, some defense lawyers may try to raise the specter of it in order to appeal to jurors’ anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

The American Bar Association has previously come out against the use of such defenses, even drafting a 2013 resolution urging states to pass laws similar to the one proposed in Rhode Island, which was approved by unanimous vote.

The National LGBT Bar Association has also supported eliminating the defense tactic.

“The gay and trans ‘panic’ defense asks a jury to blame a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity for a perpetrator’s violence,” D’Arcy Kemnitz, the executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, said in a statement. “The defendant will claim their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity was so shocking or appalling that it caused them to lose control and therefore assault, or even kill, their victim.

“This courtroom strategy permits a jury’s bias against the LGBT community that their lives are worth less than others, allows a defendant to escape conviction, and that LGBT victims of assault are deserving of the violence committed against them,” she added. “The LGBT Bar continues to work with federal and state legislators to ban the use of these tactics around the country. Justice for all should mean justice for all — including LGBT Americans. This is not a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue. This is an issue of equal justice under the law.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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