AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION ADOPTED BY THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES AUGUST 12-13, 2013 Resolution
RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, tribal, state, local and territorial governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses, which seek to partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction. Such legislative action should include:
Requiring courts in any criminal trial or proceeding, upon the request of a party, to instruct the jury not to let bias, sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion influence its decision about the victims, witnesses, or defendants based upon sexual orientation or gender identity; and
Specifying that neither a non-violent sexual advance, nor the discovery of a person’s sex or gender identity, constitutes legally adequate provocation to mitigate the crime of murder to manslaughter, or to mitigate the severity of any non-capital crime.
Jorge Steven Lopez-Mercado, age 19, was decapitated, dismembered and burned for being openly gay, but according to the police investigator on the case, “people who live this lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen.” When Matthew Shepard, age 21, made a pass at two men in a gay bar, he should have expected to be beaten, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left to die. When Emile Bernard was stabbed, beaten and blinded after coming on to a hitchhiker, his assailant claimed he could not be guilty since the victim “was asking for trouble” by making sexual advances. If Angie Zapata, age 18, hadn’t initially “hidden” that she had male anatomy, her attacker would never have bludgeoned her to death with a fire extinguisher. And when a fellow student shot Larry King, age 15, execution-style in front of their teacher and classmates, his actions were understandable because Larry wore dresses and heels, and said “Love you, baby!” to him the day before. These are actual defenses, offered by real defendants, in United States courts of law that have succeeded in mitigating or excusing real crimes, even today.
The “gay panic” and “trans panic” legal defenses are surprisingly long-lived historical artifacts, remnants of a time when widespread public antipathy was the norm for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (‘LGBT’) individuals. These defenses ask the jury to find that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction. They characterize sexual orientation and gender identity as objectively reasonable excuses for loss of self-control, and thereby mitigate a perpetrator’s culpability for harm done to LGBT individuals. By fully or partially excusing the perpetrators of crimes against LGBT victims, these defenses enshrine in the law the notion that LGBT lives are worth less than others.
Historically, the gay and trans panic defenses have been used in three ways to mitigate a charge of murder to manslaughter or justified homicide. First, the defendant uses gay panic as a reason to claim insanity or diminished capacity. The defendant alleges that a sexual proposition by the victim triggered a nervous breakdown in the defendant, and then claims to have been afflicted with “homosexual panic disorder.” This insanity defense has been discredited since 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of homosexual panic disorder from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, the legal field has yet to catch up with medical progress, and variations on the defense are still being raised in court.
Second, defendants make a gay panic argument to bolster a defense of provocation by arguing that the victim’s sexual advance, although entirely non-violent, was sufficiently provocative to induce the defendant to kill. Similarly, defendants make a trans panic argument for provocation by pointing to the discovery of the victim’s biological sex, usually after the defendant and victim have engaged in consensual sexual relations, as the sufficiently provocative act that drove the defendant to kill.
Third, defendants use gay/trans panic arguments to strengthen their case for self-defense. In these cases, defendants contend that they reasonably believed the victim was about to cause them serious bodily harm because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the threat of danger would otherwise fall short of the standard for self-defense, the defendant asserts that the threat was heightened solely due to the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Successful gay and trans panic defenses constitute a miscarriage of justice. One form of injustice is obvious: the perpetrator kills or injures the victim, and then blames the victim at trial based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, the successful use of these defenses sends a message to the LGBT community that the suffering of a gay or trans person is not equal to the suffering of other victims, and will not be punished in the same manner. By the same token, in excusing violent behavior towards LGBT individuals, courts teach those who hold anti-LGBT bias that the law does not take bias attacks seriously. For those looking to hurt LGBT individuals, nothing can do more harm than the notion that violence, even homicide, is a reasonable response to a life lived openly.
Some courts and legislatures have begun to curtail the use of gay and trans panic defenses. But in other jurisdictions gay and trans panic defenses remain a valid defense option, and are successful in too many courts across the country. This report makes three recommendations to combat the discriminatory effects of gay and trans panic defenses. First, at the request of any party, courts should provide jury instructions advising juries to make their decisions without improper bias or prejudice. Second, legislatures should specify that neither non-violent sexual advances nor the discovery of a person’s gender identity can be adequate provocation for murder. Third, state and local governments should proactively educate courts, prosecutors, defense counsel, and the public about gay and trans panic defenses and the concrete harms they perpetuate against the LGBT community.
Continued use of these anachronistic defenses marks an egregious lapse in our nation’s march toward a more just criminal system. As long as the gay and trans panic strategies remain available and effective, it halts the forward momentum initiated by criminal law reforms such as rape shield rules and federal hate-crime laws. To reflect our modern understanding of LGBT individuals as equal citizens under law, gay and trans panic defenses must end.