Metro Weekly

Rhode Island lawmakers considering bill to ban “gay or trans panic” defense

The American Bar Association has previously urged states to pass similar laws

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

A Rhode Island House committee has approved a bill that would ban the use of “gay panic” or “trans panic” as a justification for a defendant’s violent actions in exchange for reduced sentences or less severe punishments.

The bill, introduced by State Rep. Kenneth Marshall (D-Bristol), would outlaw the use of arguments stating that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity was sufficient justification for a person’s disproportionate response, such as using excessive force or violence, even in cases where the victim made a pass at the defendant or if the two had been engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship.

The bill also prohibits defense lawyers from suggesting that their client suffered “reduced mental capacity” due to the disclosure of such information and therefore cannot be held responsible for their actions.

The bill now heads to the full House for consideration. 

According to a report by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank at the UCLA School of Law, defense attorneys have employed gay or trans panic defenses in at least 23 states since the 1960s. As a result, it’s led to lesser sentences, and in some cases, acquittals.

Some of the more prominent examples of cases where gay or trans panic defenses have been utilized, in whole or in part, include the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the rape and murder of transgender man Brandon Teena in Nebraska, the murder of Clarksdale, Miss., mayor candidate Marco McMillian, and the murders of trans women Gwen Araujo in California and Angie Zapata in Colorado.

In 2013, the American Bar Association drafted a resolution urging states to pass laws banning the use of gay or trans panic as a defense, stating: “Successful gay and trans panic defenses constitute a miscarriage of justice. One form of injustice is obvious: the perpetrator kills or injures the victim, and then blames the victim at trial based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, the successful use of these defenses sends a message to the LGBT community that the suffering of a gay or trans person is not equal to the suffering of other victims, and will not be punished in the same manner.”

But some politicians believe the ban on using the tactic places defendants at a disadvantage. State Rep. Justin Price (R-Richmond) told the Providence Journal in February that he believes the law would deny a jury the opportunity to hear all the facts of the case and put the incident in question into context.

During a January hearing on the bill, Price said he believed it would “essentially eliminate any defense that my sexual preference has.”

“I guess what I’m saying is if someone presents themselves as a certain gender and it goes to a certain point and then the other gendered heterosexual gets mentally freaking unstable about this thing, like finding out that he’s been kissing someone that he doesn’t realize he’s been kissing … that’s legitimate,” he said. “Like all of a sudden you think you’re with a woman and then all of a sudden that woman has a … it’s not a woman. It’s disturbing. It’s very disturbing to heterosexual men.”

The National LGBT Bar Association, an affiliate of the ABA, celebrated the bill’s passage out of committee.

“Rhode Island has taken an important step towards justice,” the organization said in a statement. “If H7066 is passed by the House and Senate, and signed into law, Rhode Island will become the third state to ban this shameful defense. Currently, California and Illinois are the only two states in the United States that ban the use of the Gay/Trans ‘Panic’ Defense.”

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