Metro Weekly

New Jersey Senate approves bill banning gay or trans “panic” defense

Bill now heads to desk of Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature into law

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

The New Jersey Senate has overwhelmingly approved a bill banning the use of gay or trans “panic” defenses for defendants accused of committing violent crimes against LGBTQ victims.

The Senate approved the bill on a bipartisan 39-0 vote on Dec. 16, following a unanimous vote in the New Jersey Assembly on Nov. 25.

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who is expected to sign it into law, making New Jersey the ninth state to prohibit gay and trans “panic” defenses.

Such defenses rest on the premise that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is so upsetting or threatening that a defendant’s loss of self-control and violent actions were understandable or justified.

The tactic is usually used to argue for less severe sentences for assaults, murders, or other violent acts.

Panic defenses have been utilized, sometimes successfully and other times not, in several high-profile crimes involving LGBTQ victims. The two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard in 1998 attempted to use the defense to plead to lesser crimes.

It was also used, in varying degrees, in cases involving the murders of transgender woman Gwen Araujo in Oakland, Calif., in 2002; Ahmed Dabarran, a gay assistant district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., in 2003; Angie Zapata, a transgender woman killed in Colorado in 2008; and transgender New Yorker Islan Nettles in 2013.

This year, at least 30 transgender Americans have been killed in the United States. According to statistics from the FBI, overall hate crimes in New Jersey have increased for the third consecutive year, with crimes committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity increasing for the third year in a row.

“Make no mistake, the ‘panic’ defense is flat-out discriminatory legal malpractice, and no one should ever be excused from murder because their victim is gay or transgender,” Christian Fuscarino, the executive director for Garden State Equality, said in a statement. “As hate crimes against LGBTQ New Jerseyans continue to rise and trans people are murdered in the streets, it’s more imperative than ever that we ensure our criminal justice system protects LGBTQ people equally — full stop. When this ban becomes law, New Jersey will send an unequivocal message that we fully value the lives and dignity of LGBTQ people.”

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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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