Joining other states who have enacted or considered a ban on the use of ‘gay or trans panic’ legal strategies in criminal cases, legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon and Joann Downey was signed into law Tuesday by Governor Phil Murphy.
The law (formerly bill A-1796) prohibits the use of so-called “gay panic” defenses for the commission of murder.
Current law provides that a homicide, which would otherwise be murder, is reduced to manslaughter if the jury finds that the homicide was committed “in the heat of passion” resulting from a reasonable provocation.
The law, previously heard before the Assembly Judiciary Committee, intends to prevent a defendant from seeking the reduction of a murder charge to manslaughter committed in the heat of passion when allegedly provoked by the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the homicide victim’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression, or affectional or sexual orientation.
“The ‘gay panic or trans panic’ defense is not a freestanding defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic. It’s used to diminish the reason for a defendant’s violent reaction that asks a jury to find a victim’s sexual orientation or gender/expression as the cause,” said McKeon (D- Essex, Morris). “Whether the person was gay, transgender or heterosexual, sexual orientation should not have any bearing on determining a person’s guilt in a murder trial. It is prejudiced against the LGBTQ community.”
One of the more well known cases invoking the ‘trans panic’ defense in New York was the trial in the death of Islan Nettles, who was beaten to death in Harlem in 2013 after James Dixon discovered she was a transgender woman. At the 2016 trial, Dixon attempted to justify his violence by arguing Nettles provoked him. Dixon was convicted and served twelve years in jail.
“This law is a major step forward in addressing discrimination in our court system, and showing New Jersey’s LGBTQ community that we stand with them in solidarity against any type of discrimination and hatred,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “The so-called ‘gay panic defense’ or ‘trans panic defense’ has never been more than a transparent attempt to allow the assault or murder of LGBTQ individuals to happen with impunity, and it is long past time that we ended this dark chapter in American legal history.”
A provoked heat of passion manslaughter is a crime of the second degree punishable by five to 10 years imprisonment, a fine of up to $150,000, or both; while murder is a crime of the first degree, punishable by a term of imprisonment for a period ranging from 30 years to life, depending upon the circumstances of the act, a fine of up to $200,000, or both.
Seven (7) states- New York, Hawaii, California, Rhode Island, Illinois, Nevada, and Connecticut- have signed into law similar legislation.
The law was approved by the Assembly in January 76-0, and by the Senate in December 39-0. It takes effect immediately.