Why do killers still get away with the "gay panic" defense?
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If a gay man ever attempted to argue that he was forced to kill a straight woman because he feared she would make a pass at him, the judge, the jury, and the press would probably laugh him out of court.
But in at least a handful of cases across the country, criminal defendants recently have attempted to convince juries that they temporarily endured insanity after discovering their murder victims were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. It's known as the "gay panic" courtroom strategy, and one man secured an acquittal in 2003 based on that tactic after he killed a gay Fulton County prosecutor in Atlanta.
Closer to home, four Bay Area murder suspects argued that they killed a transgender woman named Gwen Araujo in 2002 during bouts of insanity after discovering Araujo was a man who identified herself as a woman. One man charged with the murder accepted an early plea arrangement, while a second received a lesser sentence for revealing the location of Araujo's body. In January, the remaining defendants were given sentences of 15 years to life. Nonetheless, attempts by her killers to secure reduced sentences by employing the strategy put Araujo's own gender identity on trial.
"The arguments were coming out so vociferously when this seemed to be an open-and-shut case," Chris Daley, director of the SF-based Transgender Law Center, told the Guardian. "I guess I was a little shocked this was happening in the Bay Area."
While the "trans panic" defense ultimately failed to persuade a jury during the sentencing phase in the case of Araujo, the strategy's startling success elsewhere reveals the truly daunting challenges queer activists continue to face despite what plenty of Americans believe is a widespread contemporary acceptance of LGBT rights.
Inspired by the discussion that followed the Atlanta case, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has organized a conference for July 20–21 to discuss the so-called panic defense. She's invited a cross section of experts to speak, including Chris Lamiero, lead prosecutor in the Araujo case; civil rights attorney Gloria Allred; Dave O'Malley, a lead investigator in the Matthew Shepard case; and San Francisco police commissioner Theresa Sparks.
The private conference will be held at Hastings College of the Law beginning each day at 9 a.m. But a town hall meeting July 20 at 6:30 p.m. will be free and open to the public at the LGBT Center, 1800 Market.
Harris also invited to the conference two of the defense lawyers from the Araujo case, William Du Bois and Michael Thorman, a fact that might create a bit of tension in the room. But Harris isn't worried.
"That's why we're doing this conference — to attack and discredit prejudice," Harris told us. "It’s a matter of appealing to the biases of juries. What's offensive about that is it justifies the existence of these prejudices."
The conference comes on the heels of proposed state legislation authored by Assemblymember Sally Lieber (D–San Jose) that would revise jury instructions in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of gay panic defenses. The bill, AB 1160, has passed the Assembly and is now waiting in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
It's going to be tough to fully bar defense lawyers from raising issues at a trial, and jury instructions alone may not erase the damage done by a lawyer throwing gay panic around the courtroom. But just raising national consciousness about the problem could have a significant impact.
Harris said her other motivation for forming the conference is the still-high rate of hate crimes in San Francisco.
"We have the second largest number of hate crimes in the state," she said. "It felt like the time to do this." SFBG