Asm. Bonilla and Equality California Propose to Ban “Panic Defense” Legal Strategy by Murder Defendants

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susan bonilla

SACRAMENTO – Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla and Equality California announced that they are partnering to introduce legislation to end the use of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense strategy – a tactic used by defendants charged for murder who claim their violent acts were triggered by panic resulting from discovery of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It is reprehensible to learn that criminal defendants are encouraged by their defense counsel to employ a ‘gay panic’ or ‘trans panic’ defense in an attempt to receive a possible lesser charge or avoid conviction,” said Assemblywoman Bonilla. “A panic attack defense allows a criminal defendant to claim that violence against the LGBT community is somehow understandable or acceptable due to the victim’s orientation or gender identity. With this bill, we are making it very clear that it is never acceptable, and that there is no place for prejudice against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

AB 2501, sponsored by Equality California, a statewide advocacy organization for the LGBT community, would prohibit the use of a “panic defense” to qualify for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter instead. Current law calls for the jury to be instructed that their verdict should not be influenced by bias against a victim.

There have been several high-profile cases over the past ten years where panic defenses were used. One heinous case occurred in 2004 in the Bay Area, when four men beat and strangled teenager Gwen Araujo after they discovered her transgender status. The four men blamed each other for the killing as well as asserting panic defenses.

“It is an outrage to allow the use of panic defenses and in doing so blame the victims of horrific acts of violence,” said John O’Connor, executive director of EQCA. “Homophobia and transphobia have no place in California’s justice system.”

AB 2501 will be heard in a policy committee later this spring.