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A pair of Virginia lawmakers has introduced a pair of bills to prohibit defense lawyers from employing the gay or transgender “panic” defense, and to ensure anti-LGBTQ bias crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The first measure, introduced by Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), would prohibit the use of the LGBTQ “panic” defense to argue for leniency for violent crimes committed against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Typically, the defense seeks acquittal or reduced penalties for a defendant by claiming they were in fear or became irrational upon learning of a victim’s LGBTQ identity.
The District of Columbia recently passed a similar law in December. LGBTQ advocates, including the National LGBT Bar Association, have long advocated for ending the “panic” defense, claiming it provides justification for bias-motivated crimes or acts of violence.
“Preventing the LGBTQ+ ‘panic defense’ to be used as a ‘legitimate’ mechanism in our court system shows that LGBTQ+ lives and bodies are equal to all in the eyes of the law and that our justice system doesn’t condone violence against our community,” Roem said in a statement. “With this legislation, we are taking action to ensure no one can get away with committing a violent crime against a LGBTQ+ Virginian because they simply exist or are vulnerable enough to be visible as their authentic self.”
Wesley Bizzell, the president of the National LGBT Bar Association, expressed full support for Roem’s bill. According to the Bar Association, one in five lesbian, gay, or bisexual Americans, and one in four transgender Americans will be victims of hate crimes at some point in their lifetimes.
“[F]or far too long courts have allowed prejudice and stigma to excuse the beatings and murders of LGBTQ+ individuals, especially trans individuals,” Bizzell said. “By allowing a criminal to escape punishment for their horrific violence against LGBTQ+ victims, the LGBTQ+ ‘panic’ defense enables a shocking miscarriage of justice.”
“As a leading advocate for transgender equality, Delegate Roem understands that fatal violence facing transgender people has hit a climax this year, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown transgender women,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, which also supports the bill, said in a statement. “We need decisive action to end the availability of this unjust ‘defense’ in Virginia courts that ultimately endangers the very lives of LGBTQ people.”
“We’ve seen the ‘panic’ defense used to protect those who commit acts of terrible violence based in hate,” added Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Midlothian), who has introduced a measure to complement Roem’s bill. “Delegate Roem’s legislation clarifies that an offender’s perceptions or beliefs about a victim’s sex, gender or gender identity cannot be used as a defense for committing a crime.
Hashmi’s bill expands the definition of hate crimes to include those committed against a person based on their LGBTQ identity, and enhances penalties for those who commit such crimes.
“We continue to shine a spotlight on the unacceptable nature of hate crimes,” Hashmi said in a statement. “These acts of violence or vandalism seek to inflict pain and suffering not only on one or two individuals but on entire communities. The real goal of hate crimes is to strike fear and generate terror among targeted communities, and our legal response must be to prevent that power to terrorize.”
“Violence against LGBTQ people is shameful and never excusable,” Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. “Black trans woman are disproportionally victims of fatal violence and our laws need to be strengthened to protect them. As we work to create safer communities for trans and gender non-conforming people of color, it’s essential this legislation is prioritized. We look forward to working with Senator Hashmi and Delegate Roem to advocate for these critical bills.”
The Anti-Defamation League has also come out in support of the Virginia bills.
“ADL is pleased to welcome the introduction of two new bills in Virginia that will work hand-in-hand to provide more comprehensive and inclusive protections for hate crime victims,” Meredith Weisel, the senior associate regional director for ADL’s Washington, D.C. region, said in a statement.
“At a time when hate crimes, including those targeting the LGBTQ+ community, are on the rise here in Virginia, we must ensure that our laws are consistent with our Commonwealth’s values. Both bills send the clear message that it is unacceptable — and unjustifiable — to attack people based on their identity. We urge the Virginia legislature to swiftly pass both measures into law.”
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