New Jersey Assembly passes ban on LGBT-panic defense

New Jersey Assembly passes ban on LGBT-panic defense

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On Nov. 25, the New Jersey General Assembly unanimously passed legislation to ban the use of an LGBT-panic defense to get a reduced penalty for committing a homicide in the state. The vote was 72-0, with eight legislators absent. The Garden State is now poised to become the ninth state in the nation to pass such legislation.

“We’re very happy with the outcome of today’s vote in the state Assembly,” said Jon Oliveira, a spokesperson for Garden State Equality. “But we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going to continue to work with our partners in the state Senate to get this bill over the finish line. We want to get this on the governor’s desk as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the governor doesn’t comment on pending legislation. But LGBT advocates say he’s expected to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Assembly Bill 1796 was introduced into the Assembly on Jan. 9, 2018, and referred to the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. After a public hearing, the six-member committee unanimously approved the bill on Nov. 18.

The legislation would prevent a defendant from trying to reduce a murder charge to a charge of manslaughter committed in the heat of passion because it was provoked by the victim’s actual or perceived LGBT status.

Under current law, a homicide that would otherwise be murder is reduced to manslaughter if the jury finds that the crime was committed “in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation.”

In New Jersey, murder is a crime of the first degree, punishable by a term of imprisonment ranging from 30 years to life. A provoked heat-of-passion manslaughter is a crime of the second degree punishable by 5-10 years imprisonment. There is no death penalty in New Jersey.

Christian Fuscarino, executive director of  Garden State Equality, praised the bill’s passage in the Assembly. “No one should ever be excused from murder because their victim is gay or transgender, and New Jersey must send an unequivocal message that we fully value the lives and dignity of LGBTQ people,” Fuscarino said, in a press release. “The Assembly’s vote today to advance a ban on the gay and trans ‘panic’ defense is a significant step forward. But at a time when LGBTQ people — especially transgender Americans — have been victim to an increasing number of hate crimes, we must ensure that this legislation quickly moves through the Senate so Governor Murphy can sign it into law.”

The next step is for the bill to receive a public hearing in the state Senate Judiciary Committee. State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Middlesex), chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, couldn’t be reached for comment regarding when a hearing will be scheduled.

State Sen. Joseph A. Lagana (D-Bergen, Passaic) introduced the Senate version of the bill on May 31, 2018. State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Ocean) is also a primary Senate sponsor of the bill, and they’re working to get a vote scheduled in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

In an email, Lagana blasted the LGBT-panic defense. “The gay or trans ‘panic’ defense is a vile legal strategy used to lessen the punishment for violent and hateful offenses,” Lagana said. “It should never be permitted in any court. I am fully committed to passing this legislation, which was originally championed [in 2014] by my running mate, former Assemblyman Tim Eustace, with the amendments made in the Assembly.”

Gopal echoed those sentiments. “I am so pleased to see the Assembly pass today’s important vote to protect LGBTQ New Jerseyans,” Gopal said, in a press release. “Senator Lagana and I urge the Senate to pass this bill before 2020. We have reached out to the Judiciary Chair to get it posted at the next committee hearing.”

In 2019, at least 30 transgender Americans have been reported killed. The FBI reports that hate crimes in New Jersey have increased for the third consecutive year, with LGBTQ people making up a disproportionate amount of victims, according to a Garden State Equality press release.

Gay and trans “panic” defenses have been used to acquit dozens of murderers of their crimes across the country. Even in instances where juries are instructed not to listen to such a defense, the implicit homophobic or transphobic bias of hearing the defense at all can still influence the jury’s decision, according to Garden State Equality’s press release.

New York, Hawaii, California, Rhode Island, Illinois, Maine, Nevada and Connecticut have enacted similar legislation.

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