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October 6, 2022

Notable efforts to preclude LGBTQ+ "panic" as adequate provocation to mitigate an killing

I briefly mentioned as we started discussing the historic common-law doctrine of provocation that one modern development concerns legislative efforts to categorically preclude "panic" about gender and sexual orientation from being deemed legally adequate provocation.  The American Bar Association played a leading role here when in 2013 it unanimously approved this 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:
(a) 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
(b) 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.

This LGBTQ+ Bar webpage notes that, since the ABA's resolution, "the District of Columbia and the states of California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado, Virginia, Vermont, Oregon, Maryland, and New Mexico have banned such defenses. Legislation is pending federally as well as in multiple states."

Professor Cynthia Lee is one of the nation's leading scholars concerning provocation issues. She recently authored this notable (and lengthy) article titled "The Trans Panic Defense Revisited."  Among other virtues, this article provides a example of how an academic's views on important issues can evolve. Here is part of the article's abstract:

When a man is charged with murdering a transgender woman, a common defense strategy is to assert what is called the trans panic defense. The trans panic defense is not a traditional criminal law defense. Nor, despite its name, is it recognized as a stand- alone defense. Rather, trans panic is a defense strategy associated with the provocation or heat of passion defense....

This Article offers several reasons why the trans panic defense strategy is deeply problematic.  First, the trans panic defense appeals to negative stereotypes about transgender individuals.  Second, it legitimizes the enforcement of norms of masculinity and heterosexuality through violence.  Third, it inappropriately validates bias against transgender individuals when we live in a pluralistic society that should be tolerant and accepting of all individuals.

The Article then addresses the normative question of what should be done to rectify the harms rendered when a defendant charged with murder asserts a trans panic defense.  In the past, the Author was reluctant to support proposals to legislatively ban the trans panic defense.  She felt that the best way to defeat the trans panic defense was not to ban it, but to allow it to be aired and then have a strong prosecutor explain to the jury why it should be rejected.  She also argued that it was critically important to eradicate the underlying structures of masculinity that encourage violence against transgender women to reduce the risk of such violence taking place and to undermine the effectiveness of the trans panic defense.  She opined that the best way to achieve these goals was to educate both the public and the jury about the difficulties transgender individuals face just trying to exist in society and make the existence of bias against transgender individuals salient to the jury.

While the Author still believes in the importance of education, she now feels education alone is insufficient to ensure that juries reject the trans panic defense.  The Article explains the Author’s shift in position and concludes by examining recently enacted legislative bans on the trans panic defense and offering concrete suggestions on how legislative reform in this arena could be strengthened.

October 6, 2022 in Class reflections, Current Affairs, Recommended scholarship | Permalink


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