Activists Seek to Banish 'Gay Panic' Defense

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - A California Assemblywoman has introduced a bill that would end the use of the "panic defense" by defendants in California murder trials.

The "gay panic defense," as it also is known, is most often used in cases involving homosexual or transgender victims.

On Tuesday, a Kentucky judge sentenced 23-year-old Joshua Cottrell on a reduced charge of manslaughter, after Cottrell successfully used a "panic defense." He said he murdered a 36-year-old man who made "a perverted sexual advance" toward him in a motel room.

Cottrell testified that he killed the man in self-defense.

And in a highly publicized case in California a few years ago, three young men argued that they killed transgender teenager Gwen Araujo in a panicked rage, produced by their discovery that the woman with whom they had sex was biologically male. (The first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked on the charges.)

"These cases sadly illustrate the need to limit this defense," said Sally Lieber (D-San Jose).

Lieber, acting in concert with the homosexual advocacy group Equality California, has introduced a bill that would modify the existing definition of "voluntary manslaughter" so that defendants would no longer be allowed to argue that they were provoked to murder by discovering the victim's "disability, gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation."

"We should not allow criminal defendants to blame their victims," Lieber said in a press release issued by her staff.

"We prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation in nearly all areas of public life. Why should we allow killers to use bias and intolerance as a justification for murder?"

Likewise, Geoffrey Kors the executive director of Equality California, said Lieber's legislation is necessary "so that these bogus panic defenses cannot be used to achieve a lighter sentence."

It's not clear what the bill's prospects for passage might be.