NJ gov. signs bill banning LGBT-panic defense

Gov. Phil Murphy

On Jan. 21, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation banning the use of an LGBT-panic defense to get a reduced penalty for committing a homicide in the state. The New Jersey Senate unanimously passed the legislation last month. With Murphy’s signature, the Garden State has become the ninth state in the nation to pass such legislation, along with New York, Hawaii, California, Rhode Island, Illinois, Maine, Nevada and Connecticut.

“We will always stand with our LGBTQ+ community and promote full equality for all our residents,” Murphy said, in a press release. “Gay and trans panic defenses are rooted in homophobia and abhorrent excuses that should never be used to justify violence against vulnerable populations. With this new law, we are enacting critical measures to protect our friends and neighbors in the LGBTQ+ community.”

The legislation prevents 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.”

“Make no mistake, the ‘panic’ defense is flat-out discriminatory legal malpractice, and no one should ever be excused from murder because their victim is gay or transgender,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director for Garden State Equality, in a statement. “As hate crimes against LGBTQ New Jerseyans continue to rise and trans people are murdered across the nation, it’s more imperative than ever that we ensure our criminal justice system protects LGBTQ people equally — full stop.”

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.

The legislation, which was known as Assembly Bill 1796, was introduced into the State 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, 2019.  On Nov. 25, 2019, the New Jersey General Assembly unanimously passed the legislation in a 72-0 vote, with eight abstentions.

On Dec. 12, 2019, in a 10-0 vote, the state Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the legislation, and later that month the entire state Senate unanimously approved the legislation with one abstention.  

Primary sponsors of the legislation include state Assemblymembers John McKeon (D-Essex, Morris) and Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Senators Joe Lagana (D-Bergen, Passaic) and Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth).

“The ‘gay panic or trans panic’ defense is not a freestanding defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic. It’s used to diminish the reason for a defendant’s violent reaction that asks a jury to find a victim’s sexual orientation or gender expression as the cause,” McKeon said, in a press release. “Whether the person was gay, transgender or heterosexual, sexual orientation should not have any bearing on determining a person’s guilt in a murder trial. It is prejudiced against the LGBTQ community.”

“This new law 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,” added Downey, in a press release. He also said the gay and trans panic defense is a transparent attempt to allow the assault and murder of LGBTQ folks to “happen with impunity and it is long past time that we ended this dark chapter in American legal history.”

“Gay and trans panic defenses, which reduce the punishment for horrible crimes, amount to legal malpractice and cannot be allowed to stand,” said Lagana, in a statement. “Discrimination of any kind has no place in New Jersey, and we will to fight for all of our residents, especially during this period of increased discrimination, to ensure that our state is safe for everyone.”

“Members of the LGBTQ community deserve protection from bigotry and hate — and the so-called ‘gay panic’ or ‘trans panic’ defense has no place in our courts,” said Gopal.

Transgender advocate La’Nae Grant of East Orange, New Jersey said in a statement: “Transgender women of color are victims to murder, violence, and harassment every day of our lives simply for living authentically as ourselves. We deserve to live with dignity and safety in our communities. Knowing that the ‘panic’ defense is banned in New Jersey is another victory and moment of empowerment for Black trans women like myself. But there’s still more work to do for our community.”