MONTPELIER, Vt. — In many states across the country, there is a push to eliminate the so-called "panic defense." It is a legal defense used after committing a crime against someone because of their sexual identity.
It often comes into play when a criminal defendant claims they panicked after learning an intimate partner’s sexual identity or gender at birth.
“We were the first state to actually pass marriage equality and civil unions on a legislative level,” said Vermont state legislator Rep. Taylor Small.
Small is Vermont's first openly transgender state legislator and she was able to unanimously pass a bill that bans the "panic defense."
Vermont became the 13th state to ban the legal maneuver.
According to LGBTQ+ Bar, juries have acquitted dozens of defendants who used the strategy. The most recent acquittal happened in April 2018.
“When I came to work in the statehouse four years ago, one of the first topics we took the state's attorney general was trans or gay panic defense,” said Brenda Churchill who is with the LGBTQ+ Alliance. “We wanted it to go through statute or law, to eliminate the possibility that the criminal defendant could use that as an excuse.”
After Vermont, two more states banned the "panic defense."
Small said that this is something that is pivotal in LGBTQ+ rights.
“I think what it really underscores is the ability to trust our judicial system or just have more trust,” Small said. “So, I would love to see this passed in all the states in our nation, but I would also love to see this protection on a federal level, so it doesn’t have to be this individual state battle. I know that Senator Ed Markey already has a bill introducing banning the "panic defense," but I think what we see on the federal level is that it is slow to move on various bills.”
According to LGBTQ+ Bar, 12 more states have introduced bills banning the "panic defense," and advocates like Keith Goslant said those states can look to places like Vermont for help.
“We have created a bit of a template on how you can approach it,” Goslant said. “We have a template of the people you can invite in, and other model of pieces of legislation we looked at in crafting our bill. These are the components that made it right for us, and this is what we can present to other states and to help on federal level.”
“We don’t see it as a single movement or a single moment,” Small said. “But this is continue work that we need to ever change and ever learn through.”