Bill enacted to ban ‘gay or trans panic’ defense
State House – A new law passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor will prevent the use of the “gay or trans panic” defense in cases where a transgender or homosexual person has been murdered or assaulted.
The legislation (2018-H 7066aa, 2018-S 3014), sponsored by Rep. Kenneth A. Marshall (D-Dist. 68, Bristol, Warren) and Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence), now prohibits defense attorneys from trying to get their clients a lighter sentence or a commutation to a lower charge by arguing that the crime was the result of shock caused by discovering their victim’s gender identity or homosexuality.
“I consider this common-sense legislation,” said Representative Marshall. “A victim is a victim, and no victim’s life is worth less than another’s because of his or her gender identity or sexuality. The American Bar Association, which includes defense attorneys, has urged states to change laws to delegitimize this defense, and Rhode Island should join those states that do not allow it to be used to warp justice.”
The legislation, which was passed by the General Assembly June 23 and signed into law July 2, would prevent the use of any defense in a trial that claims the perpetrator was either provoked, suffering from diminished mental capacity or attempting self-defense as a result of discovering the victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.
“The gay or trans panic defense is an insidious threat to the lives of all LGBTQ people, who are already at higher risk than the general population for violent crimes. To say that a person provoked violent crime against himself or herself solely by being who they are is to create an unacceptable excuse for someone who carries out a hate crime. The perpetrator is not a victim, and the victim is not to blame for violence carried out against himself or herself because of their LGBTQ status,” said Senator Nesselbush. “I’m glad that this revolting defense has never been attempted in Rhode Island, and even happier that now, it never will.”
While it is somewhat rarely used and has often been rejected by courts, the gay panic defense has been used as recently as May in Texas, when a jury recommended only 10 years probation for a man who stabbed his neighbor to death. The defense was also attempted by one of the two men convicted in the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, WY, in 1998, although it was rejected.
Although it has never attempted in Rhode Island, the sponsors said the state must specify that it is an invalid defense to ensure that it remains unused. California and Illinois have adopted similar legislation.
The legislation was supported by the American Bar Association and the Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Intersex Support Network of Rhode Island.
The bill was cosponsored by Rep. David E. Bennett (D-Dist. 20, Warwick, Cranston), Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence), Rep. Kenneth J. Mendonça (R-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) and Rep. Gregory J. Costantino (D-Dist. 44, Lincoln, Johnston, Smithfield) in the House, and Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Dist. 30, Warwick) in the Senate.