Washington DC votes to ban egregious gay and trans panic defences in honour of slain victims

Gay panic defence Charles Allen

Washington DC has voted to ban gay and trans panic defences from being used by attorneys in criminal trials in a landmark win for LGBT+ rights.

Gay and trans panic defences have been heard in courtrooms around the world when a person accused of a violent crime, such as a murder or attempted murder, claims that the shock of finding out a person is LGBT+ pushed them to commit the act.

Attorneys have successfully argued that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity was to blame for them being attacked, effectively absolving the perpetrator of blame in the process.

The practice has been banned in numerous states and countries, and Washington DC is the latest to take steps to outlaw the regressive defence.

The Washington DC council voted unanimously on Tuesday (15 December) in favour of a new hate crime bill that prohibits defence attorneys from using gay and trans panic defences in criminal trials.

The bill, known as the “Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunger Panic Defence Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act 2020”, aims to better protect Washington DC residents from hate crime, according to the Washington Blade.

Bill pays tribute to those affected by gay and trans panic defences.

The legislation pays tribute to Bella Evangelista, a trans woman who was killed in 2003 by a former client. Her killer, Antoine Jacobs, argued that he shot Evangelista in self defence after discovering that she was trans.

It also references Tony Hunter, a gay man who died after being punched in the face, causing him to fall and hit his head. The assailant, Robert Hannah, claimed that Hunter had touched him in a suggestive way.

The landmark bill has also updated Washington DC’s hate crime legislation to make it easier for victims to have crimes recognised as being motivated by hatred.

Up until now, the city’s hate crime legislation had confused juries, as it required that hate be the “sole” motivating factor in an attack in order for an aggressor to be convicted. The new bill adds a provision that says: “A designated act need not solely be based on or because of an accused’s prejudice”.

DC councillor Charles Allen, who helped push the bill through, said the city is “host to many First Amendment assemblies” and that they will continue to “accommodate all who seek to express their freedoms of speech” in Washington DC.

However, he added: “We also reject acts of hate and we reject violence.”

Allen told councillors in a virtual sitting that white supremacist protesters had damaged property in the city at African-American churches last weekend, and stressed the need for more robust hate crime protections for minority groups.

The bill will now go to Mayor Bowser, who has said she will sign it, before it goes to Capitol Hill for a legislative review by Congress.

The DC Advisory Neighbourhood Commission’s Rainbow Caucus welcomed the bill, saying it was “heartening” to see the “necessary legislation” passed.

“We thank the council for their action today, as we all reaffirm our vow that hate has no place in the District of Columbia.”