Democratic lawmakers file bills to stop gay or trans ‘panic defense’

Proponents argue that this defense equates to utilizing someone’s identity to excuse a hate crime.
For the purpose of justifying an attack on someone because of their identity, Democratic lawmakers in Florida are aiming to make the state the 16th to restrict the use of a “panic” argument. Two bills introduced this week indicate as much.

Although not an official defense like Florida’s “stand your ground” law, the “gay or trans panic argument” has been used to argue that the victim’s disclosure of their gender identity or sexual orientation provoked the defendant to panic and attack.

Lauren Book, the Democratic leader of the Florida Senate and a representative for the county’s southwestern corner, has introduced legislation (SB 328) to prevent criminal defendants from arguing that their victims’ out sexuality or gender expression prompted the violence. Representative Jennifer “Rita” Harris (D-Orlando) introduced a companion bill in the House (HB 393).

According to a press release, this is Book’s third year introducing the bill as part of her “pro-LGBTQ agenda.” However, the bill has not yet passed through the committee process. Despite a 2013 demand from the American Bar Association for states to pass legislation eliminating this defense, it is still being used.

“legal gymnastics to defend a hate crime,” Book says, referring to the defense of an attacker who targets LGBTQ people.

Book said in a prepared statement, “It is discriminatory and unacceptable for LGBTQIA+ individuals to be held liable for their own attacks or even killings on the grounds of merely being themselves.” It is unacceptable that the current legal framework permits attack on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

When two males were accused of murdering Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, and they pleaded “gay panic,” the case received widespread media attention. However, the offenders were each given two life sentences that must be served concurrently.

Another case from 2018 that received widespread media coverage involved a man who fatally shot his neighbor while the two men were in the same room listening to music. The jury recommended 10 years of probation for the man. Despite the lack of proof, the defendant maintained that the victim had attacked him after rejecting his love overtures.

Harris stated that this legislation goes to the heart of an individual’s right to exist as they are.

LGBTQ people “have every right to the freedom to exist without harm,” Harris said in a prepared statement.

In a prepared statement, LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Florida praised the laws as vital, especially at this time. Recent law further restricts the ability to discuss LGBTQ concerns in educational settings.

Public policy director for Equality Florida John Harris Maurer said, “At a time when some state politicians are fueling the flames of anti-LGBTQ animus, this measure reflects Floridians’ actual values.” “No one, regardless of who they are or who they love, should have to carry the weight of violence perpetrated against them and be revictimized by the justice system. In this way, all Floridians are safe.