Ban on LGBTQ ‘panic’ defense nears in Virginia

Del. Danica Roem authored the bill to ban LGTBQ+ 'panic' defenses in Virginia.

Virginia’s Senate is set to consider a bill by Del. Danica Roem, of Manassas, that would ban the use of so-called gay or transgender “panic” defenses, in criminal trials.

Roem said Virginia’s current law enables defendants to blame the victim for an attack.

“They would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that person was trans, and when I found out, I couldn’t help myself, and I felt the need to either maim or murder that person,'” Roem told WTOP, minutes after learning her bill was headed to the full Senate.

Roem’s bill HB 2132, passed the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee by a vote of 14-1, Monday. She believes it will be taken up by the full Senate on Tuesday.

Roem, a Democrat from Virginia’s 13th District, became the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature, in 2017.

Judy Shepard, the mother of the late Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 because of his sexuality, testified in favor of the bill in both Virginia’s House and Senate, Roem said.

Roem said she filed the bill after hearing from a teenage constituent.

“He is living in 2021 with the same fear that I lived with, when I was closeted as a freshman in high school in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was killed,” Roem said.

For decades, defendants have claimed they attacked a person after being propositioned, or embarrassed by an LGBTQ+ person.

“It’s called a ‘heat of passion’ defense, in which your actions can either be explained or forgiven,” Roem said.

Del. Danica Roem's bill would make Virginia the 12th state to ban gay 'panic' defenses.

Under Roem’s bill, a judge would be required to instruct juries that “discovery of, perception of, or belief about another person’s actual or perceived sex, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation, whether or not accurate, is not a defense,” in crimes of physical violence.

“You can’t say, ‘That person being gay is the reason I assaulted or killed them, or the reason why my sentence should be reduced,'” said Roem.

Under the bill, whether the attacked person is actually gay — for instance — has no bearing, Roem said.

“Just because you perceive someone one way doesn’t mean, No. 1, that’s who they actually are, and two, does not excuse you from killing or hurting that person,” she said.

Virginia would become the 12th state to ban the defense, in addition to the District of Columbia, Roem said.

Roem said she expects Gov. Ralph Northam will sign the bill, since Attorney General Mark Herring was involved in crafting the bill, to protect the Constitutional rights of both the defendant and the person who was attacked.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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