Virginia is the first southern state to ban the ‘trans panic’ defense that previously gave lighter sentences to assailants claiming to react to someone’s gender identity

AP ralph northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

  • Virginia passed a bill nullifying the “gay/trans panic defense” on Wednesday.
  • The defense has traditionally been used in murder and assault cases against LGBT victims.
  • Virginia, with Gov. Ralph Northam signing the bill, is the first southern state to ban its use.
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill Wednesday invalidating the “gay/trans panic” defense, which lawyers have previously used as an excuse to secure lighter sentences for people facing homicide charges.

Prior to the bill’s passing, people accused of violent crimes could claim panic as a defense, saying they reacted to a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill nullifies that argument in murder and assault cases.

A dozen other states have already banned the defense. Virginia, with Northam signing the bill, has become the first southern state to do so.

Virginia’s state House and Senate passed the bill in February, sending it over to Northam’s office.

Democratic Delegate Danica Roem originally wrote and sponsored the Virginia bill. Roem is one of four openly trans legislators in the country.

Roem said in an interview with NBC News that she hopes other states will follow Virginia’s lead.

“I hope that as a region, the Mid-Atlantic can really tell people that you are welcome here because of who you are, and we will protect you here because of who you are,” Roem said.

Lawyers from the National LGBT Bar Association say the defense has traditionally been used in three distinct ways:

  • A defendant claims that a victim “triggered a nervous breakdown” due to that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • A defendant claims that a victim’s proposition was “sufficiently ‘provocative’ to induce the defendant to kill the victim.
  • A defendant claims that “they believed that the victim, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, was about to cause the defendant serious bodily harm. This defense is offensive and harmful because it argues that a person’s gender or sexual identity makes them more of a threat to safety,” the National LGBT Bar Association said.

Research shows that more than 1 out of 4 trans people will experience a hate crime in their lifetime.

The bill comes amid a surge of anti-trans bills being considered in state legislatures across the country this year. Insider previously reported that 28 states are voting on anti-trans legislation in 2021.

Most recently,Arkansas became the first state to pass a bill prohibiting doctors from providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth following a Monday state Senate vote.

The bill would prohibit doctors from offering gender-confirming hormone treatment or surgery to trans minors. Doctors would also be unable to refer minors to other providers for treatment.

The legislation now goes to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk for signature. He is expected to either sign or veto the bill early next week.

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Virginia has moved closer to abolishing the death penalty in a watershed moment for the Southern state

Virginia state capitol
The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

With a key legislative vote on Friday, Virginia is on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty, a watershed moment for a state that long embraced the practice as an anti-crime deterrent.

The Democratic-controlled House of Delegates voted 57-41 to end the death penalty, with 54 Democrats and three Republicans backing the measure, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled state Senate voted on a 21-17 party-line vote to approve a similar measure.

With Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in support of an abolition bill, Virginia is set to join 22 other states that have ended capital punishment and become the first Southern state to end the practice.

Larry Sabato, a longtime political analyst at the University of Virginia, told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that for decades, such an action would have been difficult to imagine.

“In the 20th century, few would have thought this was likely to happen at all, much less that Virginia would be the first in the South to eliminate capital punishment,” he said. “It shows dramatically how different the new Virginia is from the old.”

Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since 1608 – with 113 of the killings occuring after the Supreme Court paved the way for executions to restart in 1976 as a result of Gregg v. Georgia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Read more: Inside the 7-minute virtual workouts the Biden transition team used to stay connected as staffers prepared to demolish Trump’s policies

Democratic state Delegate Mike Mullin, a prosecutor who introduced the House legislation, said having a death penalty creates the risk of errors.

“There are many arguments for why we should abolish the death penalty,” he said. “These arguments touch on everything from the moral implications of the death penalty, to the racial bias in how it is applied, to its ineffectiveness, to the extraordinary cost.”

He added: “Perhaps the strongest argument for abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty allows us the possibility of being wrong.”

In 1985, Earl Washington Jr. came within days of being executed for a rape and murder that he did not commit.

After spending 17 years in prison, with many of them on death row, Washington was released in 2001 after more extensive DNA testing, unavailable in earlier years, proved his innocence.

Republican Delegate Jason Miyares, a former prosecutor, defended the use of the death penalty for “worst of the worst” murderers and said that the victims and their loved ones have been largely sidelined in the debate.

“If there is one word to describe what happened to these victims, it is just cruelty – unimaginable cruelty on a scale that’s hard to even process,” he said. “They died with sheer terror on their hearts with people often taunting them.” 

He added: “It’s not vengeance, it’s justice.”

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