Strategy comes as lawmakers in California and New York consider bills to ban the practice of introducing a victim’s sexual orientation in court
SAN FRANCISCO Prosecutors said they want to limit the use of “gay panic” defenses where defendants claim their crimes were justified because of fear or anger over their victims’ sexual orientation.
“The suggestion that criminal conduct is mitigated by bias or prejudice is inappropriate,” said San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who organized a two-day national conference on the issue. “We can’t outlaw it, but we can combat it.”
Lawmakers in California and New York are considering bills to deter the common courtroom strategy of making a victim’s sexual orientation central to a criminal defense.
Both measures would require judges to remind jurors that bias toward the victim cannot influence their deliberations.
California’s bill also would instruct juries that gay panic defenses are inconsistent with state laws protecting gays, lesbians and transgenders from discrimination.
It was prompted by the murder of 17-year-old Gwen Araujo, a transgender teenager who was beaten and strangled in 2002 after two men with whom she’d had anal sex learned she was biologically male.
At the July 20 conference, the prosecutor who won second-degree murder verdicts in that case expressed skepticism that new laws are the answer.
“Gwen being transgender was not a provocative act,” said Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Chris Lamiero. “It’s who she was.”
“However, I would not further ignore the reality that Gwen made some decisions in her relations with these defendants that were impossible to defend,” he added.
“I don’t think most jurors are going to think it’s OK to engage someone in sexual activity knowing they assume you have one sexual anatomy when you don’t.”
Araujo, who lived with her mother, dressed full-time as a woman.
Two defense lawyers who used their clients’ rage at discovering the truth about Araujo as part of their defense agreed that the issue is too complicated to be legislated.
Other conference participants suggested different strategies for defusing defense arguments that play on negative public attitudes toward homosexuality.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 28, 2006.