Assembly votes to ban ‘gay panic’ argument as defense in murder cases

The state Assembly on Monday voted unanimously to ban so-called “gay panic” as a defense in murder cases, a legal device that has allowed defense attorneys to seek a lesser charge by arguing that a homicide was prompted by the discovery of the victim’s sexual orientation.

The lower house of the state Legislature voted 73-0 for passage, and the measure now moves to the state Senate.

Lawmakers said the law was needed to keep lawyers in murder cases from seeking a downgraded charge of manslaughter by using the discovery of a victim’s sexual orientation as a form of “heat of passion” defense against allegations of premeditation.

“Nobody should ever be excused for murder because their victim is either gay or transgender,” said Michele Jaker, a board member with the advocacy group Garden State Equality.

The action by the state Assembly puts New Jersey a step closer to joining a group of other states with similar laws. The American Bar Association says that, as of July 1st, eight states had approved legislative bans on gay/trans panic as a legal defense.

“We consider it to be almost legal malpractice when it comes up,” Jaker said. “But when you have an attorney whose client is being accused of murder, you will look for any defense that can be used. So we would like to see it off the books.”

The bill was first introduced in New Jersey in 2014, but never got a full vote before Monday, where it was approved without a single dissenting vote.

“There’re a lot of proud moments that we’ve had in this state, starting with civil unions, going to marriage equality, banning gay conversion therapy. And this is just another one,” said Democrat John McKeon, who sponsored the bill in the Assembly.

“I support that bill 100%,” said Minority Leader Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the Union County Republican. “And I think it’s a significant piece of legislation.”

Supporters said they expect the bill to easily win approval in the Senate.

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