California has become the first US state to prohibit the use of “gay and transgender panic defences” in court cases through legislation.
On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law, helping to ensure fairer outcomes in cases in which LGBT people have been attacked or murdered.
The so-called “gay or trans panic defence” is a legal defence, usually against charges of assault or murder, in which the accused claims that the LGBT victim’s sexuality or romantic or sexual advances caused him or her to go into a state of violent temporary insanity.
This homophobic argument has been used widely around the world, including in South Africa, in efforts to acquit or reduce sentences against homophobic attackers.
“This bill not only changes the law in California, but creates a model for other states to follow to eliminate the use of gay and transgender panic defences in other states,” said Brad Sears, Executive Director of the Williams Institute and Adjunct Professor at UCLA School of Law.
“The gay and transgender panic defences did not appear until the late 1960s, and rely on outdated ideas that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are mental diseases,” added Jordan Blair Woods, Williams Institute Law Teaching Fellow.
The California law ensures that defendants cannot use gay and transgender panic defences in an attempt to lower a charge from murder to manslaughter or to escape conviction in California. Additionally, it ensures that such a defence cannot be used in cases of lesser charges, such as assault.
In March last year, Mbulelo Arthur Ntlauzana (25), the murderer of well known Durban businessman Nhlanhla Gasa (63), told the courts that he killed Gasa after the older man tried to seduce him.
He claimed that while they were watching TV, Gasa put his hand on his lap, kissed him on the cheek and looked at him in a sexual manner.
His defence did not appear to influence the outcome of the case. Ntlauzana, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison, stabbed Gasa 12 times and dumped his body and his burnt out Jaguar near the Tugela River.