Gov. Murphy Signs Ban on Gay+Trans “Panic” Defense for Murder Charges

New Jersey becomes 9th state to outlaw discriminatory legal strategy

For Immediate Release January 21, 2020

Media contact: Jon Oliveira, Director of Communications, oliveira@gardenstateequality.org

Today, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation to ban the gay and trans “panic” defense, a legal strategy in a murder charge case which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.

“Make no mistake, the ‘panic’ defense is flat-out discriminatory legal malpractice, and no one should ever be excused from murder because their victim is gay or transgender,” said Christian Fuscarino, Executive Director for Garden State Equality. “As hate crimes against LGBTQ New Jerseyans continue to rise and trans people are murdered across the nation, it’s more imperative than ever that we ensure our criminal justice system protects LGBTQ people equally — full stop. Thank you to Governor Murphy for signing this ban into law and sending an unequivocal message that we fully value the lives and dignity of LGBTQ people in New Jersey.”

“Transgender women of color are victims to murder, violence, and harassment every day of our lives simply for living authentically as ourselves,” said La’Nae Grant, a transgender advocate from East Orange. “We deserve to live with dignity and safety in our communities. Knowing that the ‘panic’ defense is banned in New Jersey is another victory and moment of empowerment for black trans women like myself, but there’s still more work to do for our community.”

As part of its federal agenda, Garden State Equality is working with its partners in the Congress and Senate to advocate for a nationwide ban on the “panic” defense.

When the “panic” defense is employed, the perpetrator claims that their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity not only explains — but excuses — their loss of self-control and subsequent assault. The new law would prevent a murder charge in such a case from being reduced or acquitted.

Gay and trans “panic” defenses have been used to acquit dozens of murderers of their crimes. In New Jersey, the defense has been used at least once unsuccessfully. Even in instances where juries are instructed not to listen to gay and trans “panic” defenses, the implicit homophobic or transphobic bias of hearing the defense at all can still influence the jury’s decision.

In 2019, at least 30 transgender Americans were reported killed. The FBI reported that hate crimes in New Jersey increased for the third consecutive year, with LGBTQ people making up a disproportionate amount of victims. In November, Governor Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced policy changes for law enforcement to protect LGBTQ New Jerseyans following the Transgender Equality Task Force’s final report and recommendations.

In 2019, five states outlawed the “panic” defense, including Maine, New York, Hawaii, Nevada, and Connecticut. Three other states have previously outlawed the discriminatory legal strategy: California (2014), Illinois (2017), and Rhode Island (2018).

In New Jersey’s upcoming legislative session, Garden State Equality will be advocating to make HIV-prevention drugs like PrEP/PEP available over-the-counter without a prescription, reform New Jersey’s HIV criminalization laws, secure funding for LGBTQ youth homelessness, pass a bill of rights for LGBTQ older adults, implement policy recommendations from the NJ Transgender Equality Task Force, among other items.

Former Assemblymen Tim Eustace and Reed Gusciora initially introduced and sponsored legislation in 2014-2015 to ban the “panic” defense. A1796 / S2609 was sponsored in the Senate by Joseph Lagana, Vin Gopal, Troy Singleton, and Loretta Weinberg.

###