ABA Unanimously Passes Resolution Curtailing "Gay Panic" Defense

by Bobby McGuire

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 13, 2013

As reported in the ABA Journal, yesterday during the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, the House of Delegates - the ABA's governing body, unanimously passed a resolution urging federal, state, local and territorial governments to pass legislation curtailing the availability and effectiveness of the use of "gay panic" and "trans panic" defenses by criminal defendants.

In a press release issued by the National LGBT Bar Association, executive director D'Arcy Kemnitz said "The ABA's adoption of this measure sends a clear message to state legislatures that legal professionals find no validity in the sham defenses mounted by those who seek to perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes as an excuse for violence." Further stating, "The 'gay panic' and 'trans panic' defenses have been used to try and excuse some of the most heinous violence exacted against innocent victims. State legislatures should immediately move to enact the ABA's recommendation by passing laws banning 'panic' defenses."

The full language of the adopted resolution reads as follows

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, 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.

The theory of "gay panic" goes back to 1920 when the term was first coined by psychiatrist Edward J. Kempf in his textbook "Psychopathology", in which he describes an acute, brief reactive psychosis suffered by the target of unwanted homosexual advances. According to Wikipedia, despite the psychotic nature of the disorder, Kempf called it "acute homosexual panic." The disorder is also known in Kempf's honour as "Kempf's disease." Breakdowns were said to occur in situations that involve sexual assault by the same sex, such as dormitories or military barracks.

In the courtroom, this theory has been employed as a defense in cases of assault and murder of LGBT persons. The "gay panic / trans panic" defense effectively blames the victim for making unwelcome advances that cause the defendant to go into a state of temporary insanity where they cannot be held responsible for their actions no matter how violent.

"Gay panic" has been used as a defense in recent years on a number of high profile assault and murder cases, most notably the 1995 trial of Jonathan Schmitz, who killed his friend Scott Amedure after learning, during a taping of "The Jenny Jones Show," that Amedure was sexually attracted to him. Schmitz confessed to committing the crime, but claimed that Amedure's homosexual overtures angered and humiliated him. Three years later, the defense would be used during the trial of the two men accused of killing university student Matthew Shepard. The strategy proved ineffective or inadmissible and in both cases, ending with convictions for the defendants.

"Too many people have hidden for far too long behind baseless 'panic' defenses," Kemnitz said. "Judges, lawmakers and juries must demand that these practices come to an end and juries must be provided with instructions advising juries to make their decisions free of improper bias and prejudice. Today's ABA resolution is an important first step towards realizing that goal."