Legislation bars ‘gay panic’ defense in Oregon murder cases

Oregon

House sends bill to Gov. Brown 10 months after a transgender woman is stabbed to death in Portland.

FILE – There have been more anti-gay rights ballot measures in Oregon than in any other state.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A suspect could not assert so-called “gay panic” as a legal defense against second-degree murder in Oregon under a bill that is headed to Gov. Kate Brown.

The Oregon House passed Senate Bill 704 without amendment on a 54-0 vote Thursday, May 13.

The bill would bar the discovery of a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a reasonable explanation for someone undergoing an extreme emotional disturbance as an affirmative defense to second-degree murder. A person would not be justified in using physical force against another person upon discovery of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Oregon would join 13 other states, plus Washington, D.C., with similar laws. The Senate passed it, 29-1, on April 14; Republican Dallas Heard of Roseburg was the lone opponent.

Though Senate Bill 704 does not bear anyone’s name unlike bills in other states, its passage comes less than a year after the stabbing death of Aja Raquell Rhone-Stevens, a 32-year-old transgender woman, in July 2020 in Northeast Portland. She was attending a vigil for another homicide victim. No one has been arrested in connection with the case.

She was one of a record 44 deaths tallied in 2020 by the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people. Many of the victims are transgender people of color. The organization has tallied 23 deaths so far this year.

“When we finally see justice for Aja’s murder, we can ensure that, when we show up to the courtroom, her memory won’t be insulted by someone trying to use the panic defense to justify her death,” Dana Spears, her sister, said in a statement after the House vote. “I’m thankful to everyone in the community who used their voice for Aja, and saw this bill passed.”

It was one of the priorities of Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group.

“This legislation states, unequivocally, in Oregon, there is never an excuse for violence against transgender people,” Mikki Gillette said on behalf of the group.

Under current state law, a suspect can assert an affirmative defense to second-degree murder if the extreme emotional disturbance is not the result of the person’s own intentional, knowing, reckless or criminally negligent act and if there is a reasonable explanation for the disturbance.

“These cases often involve incredible and brutal acts of violence,” Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, the bill’s floor manager, said during House debate. “Defendants use these defenses to avoid full accountability on the grounds that actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is reasonable in and of itself to be considered adequate provocation.

“Passage of this bill would send a strong and proactive message that the perpetrator of a second-degree murder will not be able to excuse the crime simply based on who the victim is.”

Power, a lesbian, is one of four House chief sponsors of the bill.

So is Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who has identified himself as gay for 30 years. He said he considered himself lucky that he was unable to think of a negative long-term consequence to himself or his husband for being gay.

“But I know that is not true for every LGBT person in our state and country,” he said.

Nosse described the 2020 death of Rhone-Stevens.

“When we finally see justice for her murder, we want to ensure that we can show up to the courtroom and her memory is not insulted by someone trying to use the panic defense for her death,” he said.

Also a chief sponsor is Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, who said transgender women of color are more likely to be the targets of violence.

“Many of these attacks are motivated by nothing other than the victim’s gender or orientation,” she said. “I have heard from constituents, friends and family on how important the passage of this bill is to them,” including a nephew who sent her a text message.

“I was proud to say to him that I do know,” she said.

Rep. Anna Williams is a Democrat from Hood River whose district includes Sandy, where a gay pride rally drew a counterprotest barely two months ago.

“A law that excuses criminal behavior against certain groups of people is essentially a law that diminishes the humanity of that group,” Williams said. “The existence of the LGBTQ panic defense means that as a state, we sanction violence against members of this community.”

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