January 21, 2020 at 5:17 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
N.J. becomes ninth state to ban ‘gay panic’ defense
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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation into law legislation the use of gay panic defense in court.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law Tuesday legislation that would prohibit the use of gay or trans panic as a defense in state court, making the Garden State in the ninth in the United States to enact such a law.

“We will always stand with our LGBTQ+ community and promote full equality for all our residents,” Murphy said in a statement. “Gay and trans panic defenses are rooted in homophobia and abhorrent excuses that should never be used to justify violence against vulnerable populations. With this new law, we are enacting critical measures to protect our friends and neighbors in the LGBTQ+ community.”

Individuals accused of violent crimes against LGBT people have in the past invoked gay and trans panic defenses in court to receive a lesser sentence, and in some cases, avoid conviction. In essence, the accused would blame the emotional disturbance of finding their victim was LGBT to avoid legal consequences for the act of violence.

Primary sponsors of the legislation, known as A1796, include New Jersey State Assembly members John McKeon and Joann Downey and State Sens. Joe Lagana and Vin Gopal.

“The ‘gay panic or trans panic’ defense is not a freestanding defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic,” McKeon said in a statement. “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. 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.”

Christian Fuscarino, executive director for Garden State Equality, commended Murphy for signing the legislation into law and “sending an unequivocal message that we fully value the lives and dignity of LGBTQ people in New Jersey.”

“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,” Fuscarino said. “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.”

Other jurisdictions with bans are California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Hawaii, Maine, Connecticut and New York.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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