Metro Weekly

Virginia lawmakers pass Danica Roem’s bill to ban gay and trans “panic” defenses

Bill prohibits criminal defendants from using a victim's LGBTQ status as justification for violence

danica roem
Danica Roem – Photo by Julian Vankim

Virginia lawmakers have approved a bill to ban the use of gay or trans “panic” defenses in the state, sending it to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature into law.

The bill, patroned by Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), states that a person’s actual or perceived sex, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation is not “in and of itself, or together with an oral solicitation,” a defense to murder, manslaughter or other violent acts.

The bill is intended to ensure that criminal defendants cannot use a victim’s identity to argue they were justified in using lethal force against a victim, even if the victim hits on them or makes a pass at them.

Contrary to what some opponents claim, the bill does not dismiss traditional self-defense lawsuits, meaning a defendant can be justified in defending themselves if they are ever physically attacked by a person who happens to be LGBTQ, but simply cannot use a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or their own biases against LGBTQ people, as justification for their own acts of violence.

The bill passed largely along party lines, with all Democrats and four Republicans voting for passage in the House, and 20 Democrats and three Republicans passing it in the Senate after senators adopted their own amendments.

With Roem’s approval, the House agreed to the Senate amendments, sending the bill on to Gov. Northam. With Northam’s signature, Virginia will become the 12th state in the country to ban the defense.

Roem celebrated the bill’s passage, tweeting: “It’s done. We’re banning the gay/trans panic defense in Virginia.”

Much of the opposition to the bill was due to concerns by lawmakers about restricting the types of defenses that defendants may employ in court, or the belief that Virginia courts would outright reject a “panic” defense, thereby making the bill unnecessary. 

Sen. Joseph Morrissey (I-Richmond), an independent who typically caucuses with Democrats, said lawmakers would be going “down a very slippery slope” if they began limiting the types of defenses a defendant could employ, reports NBC affiliate WVIR.

But Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said that lawmakers have previously repealed defenses that people found abhorrent, and noted instances in which courts in the commonwealth have previously accepted the “panic” defense as legitimate.

See also: D.C. Council passes hate crimes omnibus bill, bans gay and trans “panic” defenses

Historically, “panic” defenses have been used by defendants in a number of high-profile cases around the country — one of the most notorious instances being the case of two men ultimately convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.

Other defendants charged with murdering or maiming LGBTQ victims — such as Gwen Araujo, Angie Zapata, and Marco McMillan — have also attempted to use the defense, arguing that they became “justifiably” irrational or scared when the victim made a pass at them — even in instances where there was no evidence to back up such a claim.

Roem’s bill was supported by the National LGBT Bar Association, which has advocated for similar bills in other states, as well as by LGBTQ advocacy groups. The American Bar Association has also previously recommended that state legislatures curtail the ability of defendants to employ gay or trans “panic” defenses.

LGBTQ rights organization Equality Virginia praised the bill, noting that it would especially help transgender women of color, who are often targeted for violence due to their gender identity.

“While this bill protects all members of the LGBTQ community, it’s especially critical for Black and brown trans women who are facing an epidemic of fatal violence,” Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. “The LGBTQ panic defense was rooted in homophobia and transphobia and should’ve never been used in our court system. We’re proud of the leadership of Del. Roem and other lawmakers to pass this important legislation.”

Erin Uritus, the CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, which provided testimony in support of banning the “panic defense,” praised the bill’s passage.

“The ‘panic defense’ is pure victim-blaming rooted in homophobia and transphobia,” she said. “No one should ever be excused for violence simply because of who their victim is. By passing this law, Virginia is sending an irrefutable message that it fully values the lives and dignity of all people. Through our work with hundreds of the largest companies in the United States, we know that American businesses want to see states pass laws that uphold the rights of LGBTQ Americans.”

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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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