Thank you Virginia for protecting LGBTQ citizens from harmful court practices.
Virginia recently became the 12th U.S. state to outlaw the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense in criminal trials. The infamous defense attempts to justify crimes against LGBTQ+ people by arguing the revelations of a victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation (often argued to be a sexual advance) justifiably caused the defendant to commit violence.
Thankfully, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill into law on Wednesday, March 31, banning the defense for murder and voluntary manslaughter trials, according to Bloomberg Law. Before that, the bill (HB 2132) was passed in the state House 58-42 and Senate 23-15 in February. The Senate also amended the bill to add that oral solicitation, or hitting on someone, was an unacceptable justification for the LGBTQ+ panic defense.
“You can’t just say that because you discovered, or you perceived someone as being LGBTQ, that that in and of itself, or coupled with an oral solicitation, is reason to murder or assault that person,” said Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D), the bill’s author.
When a 15-year-old out constituent from Manassas Park asked me to introduce this bill, that student was living with the same fear that I did as a 14-year-old closet case when Matthew Shepard was murdered in '98.
— Del. Danica Roem (@pwcdanica) March 31, 2021
In addition, Roem tweeted after the signing, “Thank you to my team, the advocates who testified, my colleagues who voted for it and my 15-year-old out student constituent in Manassas Park who requested it.”
According to Virginia Mercury, there have been at least eight instances in Virginia where the panic defense was used. Research by criminal justice professor Carsten Andersen found that five murders and three assaults in Virginia between 1973 and 2011 fit this description.
“In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial,” Andresen wrote in a statement about the bill.
In addition, there have been around 200 homicide cases nationally where the panic defense was attempted. Currently, there are 39 states that still allow the panic defense to be sued in court cases revolving around the assault or murder of LGBTQ people. Maryland and Iowa are the next states of interest on this matter.
A measure to ban the panic defense passed the state House in 2020 before being sidetracked in the Senate to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Then in January of this year, Maryland Del. Julie Palakovich Carr reintroduced the bill (HB 231) alongside a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Clarence K. Lam in the Senate (SB 46). While the House unanimously passed its version on March 10, the Senate has yet to address the companion bill.
Meanwhile, Iowa had a similar situation to Maryland last year. A bill to ban the trans panic defense (HSB 11) was unanimously passed in the state House in 2020, but meetings within the legislative body were suspended a week later due to COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate ended up never addressing the bill. The bill was then reintroduced in January of this year and passed the House unanimously in February.