Chicago — Starting this month, Illinois will bar a rare criminal defense allowing the use of a victim’s sexual orientation as justification for violent crime, a ban gay rights advocates say they will attempt to replicate in about half a dozen states.
Defense attorneys will no longer be able to mount the so-called “gay panic defense” in Illinois, the second state after California to prohibit the tactic. It isn’t common, but one study shows it has surfaced in about half of all U.S. states and has been used with some success. Advocates say bans are necessary because crimes against gay and transgender people are on the rise, but some attorneys remain skeptical, calling the ban politically motivated and unnecessary because the old-fashioned defense wouldn’t hold up in court today.
After a lackluster attempt in 2016, the Illinois ban sailed through the Legislature in May with no opposition and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it into law without comment. Supporters called it a major victory for LGBTQ rights — especially as advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign report spikes in murders of transgender people — that could provide momentum for change elsewhere.
There are variations, but it generally goes like this: A person doesn’t realize someone is gay or transgender and engages in a flirtation, then discovers that person’s sexual orientation and that discovery triggers a passionate involuntary response such as murder.
Advocates point to the beating death of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman who died on a New York City street in 2013. James Dixon, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year, flirted with Nettles before realizing she was transgender. He punched her in the face and she fell and hit her head.
Legal experts including Anthony Michael Kreis, a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who helped write the Illinois law, said Dixon got a lenient 12-year prison sentence in a plea deal because of the “trans panic” defense.
Supporters plan to revive legislative attempts to ban what’s also known as the “trans panic” defense, in statehouses in Washington and New Jersey, where proposals haven’t yet received committee votes. Advocates also hope to make inroads in New York, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas.
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