Metro Weekly

New Jersey Assembly unanimously approves banning “gay panic” defense

If bill is approved by Senate and signed by governor, New Jersey would become 9th state to ban the defense strategy

New Jersey State Capitol – Photo: Smallbones, via Wikimedia.

The New Jersey State Assembly voted last week to prohibit the use of “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses in murder cases.

The Democrat-run lower house voted 73-0 to pass the bill, which prevents defendants — and their attorneys — from downgrading charges of murder to manslaughter by arguing that fear or anger at discovering a victim’s LGBTQ identity was justification for them to act out violently.

“Nobody should ever be excused for murder because their victim is either gay or transgender,” Michele Jaker, a board member for Garden State Equality, told NJTV News.

“We consider it legal malpractice when it comes up,” Jaker said of the defense. “But when you have an attorney whose client is being accused of murder, you will look for any defense that can be used. So we would like to see it off the books.”

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange), the bill’s sponsor, compared the bill’s passage to other pro-LGBTQ developments, including the legislature’s approval of civil unions, the legalization of marriage equality, and the passage of a bill banning conversion therapy, calling it a “proud moment” for New Jersey.

The bill also got the stamp of approval from Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who called it a “significant piece of legislation.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved, and then to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who is expected to sign it into law.

The bill was first introduced in New Jersey in 2014, during the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie (R), but never received a full vote.

The American Bar Association, which has endorsed eliminating the use of the “gay panic” defense, says that eight states — California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, and New York — have already banned the practice, which it calls a form of discrimination, and hopes other states will follow suit.

“It must be noted that gay/trans panic is not an affirmative legal defense; it is a tactic to strengthen the defense by playing on prejudice,” the ABA said in a statement earlier this summer. “It has, however, been used to not only explain a defendant’s actions, but to excuse them as well.”

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

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