NM lawmakers propose bills banning gay-trans “panic defense”

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Advocates say it’s a courtroom defense rooted in homophobia, that’s used to justify crimes against the gay community. 

Now a few New Mexico lawmakers are looking to put a stop to the so-called “gay-trans panic defense” with a new law. 

A Democrat representing Albuquerque’s west side, Senator Jacob Candelaria, says he will soon introduce a bill to outlaw the use of a victim’s gender, gender identity or sexual orientation as a criminal defense in specific cases. 

“These vestiges of an age where gay people were feared and targeted and assaulted need to end, and they need to end in New Mexico,” said Senator Candelaria in an interview with KRQE News 13 Tuesday. 

The 7-year senator says his upcoming legislative proposal aims to address what he calls an “ongoing problem in America” that the American Bar Association has called upon states and Congress to stop. 

“You can use the fact that you discovered someone was gay or trans, or they made a non-violent romantic pass at you as a defense,” said Sen. Candelaria. 

The LGBT Bar Association defines the “panic defense” as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.” 

An openly gay lawmaker, Candelaria says the “panic defense” has no place in a courtroom. The legislation he says he’s working on drafting will be specifically tailored to the panic defense’s use in assault and murder cases. 

“For me, as a lawyer, and as a Senator, but also personally as an openly gay man in this state, it is fundamentally offensive that because of who I am, or how people perceive me, or if they don’t like the way I act toward them, they could use the fact that I’m gay to get a lesser sentence, to justify their otherwise unjustifiable acts of violence of violence and murder,” said Sen. Candelaria. 

An LGBTQ advocacy organization, Equality New Mexico calls the barring of the panic defense a “legislative priority” for 2019. 

“It’s an effort to make sure that we aren’t harkening back to the days of when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and this is an effort to protect our communities,” said Adrian Carver, Executive Director of Equality New Mexico. 

Senator Candelaria says he hopes to pre-file his bill in the coming weeks before the session begins on January 15. 

Another Senator from Albuquerque, Democrat Cisco McSorely has filed a similar piece of legislation. 

The “panic defense” was most notably used in the trial for the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old gay man who was beaten to death by two men in Wyoming. One of the convicted killers attempted to argue that he killed Shepherd because Shepherd made a sexual advance toward him.

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