NJ Assembly approves bill to ban LGBT panic defense

The New Jersey General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee this week unanimously approved a bill that would ban the use of an LGBT-panic defense to get a reduced penalty for committing a homicide in the state.

Assembly Bill 1796 was introduced into the Assembly on Jan. 9, 2018, and referred to the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. 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.

During the Judiciary Committee’s Nov. 18 hearing, Garden State Equality board member Thomas Prol testified in favor of the bill.

“We must end this discriminatory legal strategy that allows murderers of LGBTQ people to use bigotry as a defense and blame their victim,” Prol said in a press release. “It is time that New Jersey join the eight other states, including New York, Connecticut and California, that have banned the gay and trans ‘panic’ defense because it legitimizes and excuses violent criminal acts against our community. No New Jersey jury should hear that an LGBTQ person ‘had it coming’ simply because of who they are.”

Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership for Garden State Equality, said the organization is working hard to get the bill enacted into law.

“The panic defense is a discriminatory practice that really just perpetuates hatred and bigotry,” Oliveira told PGN. “It puts the blame on victims for the crime of murder. And we’ve seen throughout the country that dozens of murderers have been acquitted of their crime because of the gay and trans panic defense.”

Assemblyman John McKeon (D- Essex, Morris) is a prime sponsor of the bill. “The ‘gay panic or trans panic’ defense is not a freestanding defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic,” McKeon said in a press release. “It’s used to diminish the reason for a defendant’s violent reaction [and] asks a jury to find a victim’s sexual orientation or gender expression as the cause. Whether the person was gay, transgender or heterosexual — [LGBTQ status] should not have any bearing on determining a person’s guilt in a murder trial. It is prejudiced against the LGBTQ community.”

Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), another prime sponsor of the bill, echoed those sentiments. “This bill is a major step forward in addressing discrimination in our court system, and showing New Jersey’s LGBTQ community that we stand with them in solidarity against any type of discrimination and hatred,” said Downey, in a press release. “The so-called ‘gay panic defense’ or ‘trans panic defense’ have never been more than a transparent attempt to allow the assault or murder of LGBTQ individuals to happen with impunity. And it is long past time that we ended this dark chapter in American legal history.”

Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she was pleased the committee approved the bill. “I am glad to see that A1796 was voted favorably out of committee today,” Murphy said in a press release. “We have to enact legislation that protects New Jersey’s LGBTQ community, and I believe this is a huge step forward. This archaic law needed to be changed some time ago, and I am pleased that this legislation is now moving forward.”

Timothy Eustace, a gay man and former New Jersey Assemblyman representing much of Bergen County, commended the Judiciary Committee. “States have to defend themselves against the right-leaning laws coming out of Washington, which contribute to anti-LGBT violence,” Eustace told PGN. “We want to insulate ourselves from the violence initiated by the vitriol coming out of Washington. So I applaud the committee’s actions today.” 

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

Oliveira expects the full Assembly to vote on the bill favorably next week. “We’re expecting that to happen on Monday, Nov. 25. We’re working hard to ensure that lawmakers swiftly approve the bill. Then it will have to start in the [state] Senate. It will begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee before going to a full floor vote in the Senate.”

The state Assembly has 80 members, and the state Senate has 40 members. Democrats control both chambers. 

Matthew Saidel, a spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, had no comment on whether Murphy would sign the bill into law. “The governor’s office does not comment on pending legislation,” Saidel told PGN.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.