Transgender groups are hailing California as “the most protective” US state after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed the country’s first law addressing the use of gay and transgender panic defences.
The bill, signed into law yesterday, makes it more difficult for a defendant accused of homophobic or transphobic violence to use the controversial gay panic defence which has previously been used to argue that a murderer or attacker had a temporary moment of insanity when discovering their victim was gay.
It is named the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act (AB 1160), dedicated to a 17 year old transgender teen who was murdered by four men in 2002. Three of the men utilised panic strategies when on trial for her murder in 2004.
A 2005 Fresno County case against the killer of another transgender person, Joel Robles, ended in an alarming 4 year plea bargain. Newspaper reports quoted an Assistant District Attorney as attributing the light sentence, in part, to threatened use of panic
“This is a victory for fairness in our criminal justice system and a tribute to the courage of Gwen Araujo,” said Assemblywoman Lieber of her bill that also modifies an existing jury instruction and mandates the creation of practice materials for District Attorney’s offices.
“Too many Californians live with the very real fear that they will be victimized simply because of who they are. Making sure that our court system treats every one fairly, regardless of individual differences, is essential.”
Sylvia Guerrero, the mother of Gwen Araujo also pledged her support, she said: “I’m overjoyed that the Governor saw fit to recognise that our state is one in which every person, including my daughter and other transgender people, must be valued.
“My family and friends received a life sentence when Gwen was murdered. This victory means that our loss is making a difference, though, because we’re helping to prevent any other family from going through the same pain and misery.”
Transgender Law Centre director Christopher Daley praised the new law, “Panic strategies are a cynical way for homicide defendants whose victims are members of a disfavoured group to appeal to a jury’s worst impulses.
“The Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act is a significant step towards preventing the same societal bias that killed Gwen and Joel from affecting a jury’s deliberations. It’s signage into law also advances California’s status as the most protective state in
the nation for transgender people.”