On the first day of the revived legislative session, a state legislative committee voted down a bill that would have banned the so-call ‘gay panic defense’ in criminal proceedings. But there is now a bipartisan effort underway to bring it back.
Before the legislature temporarily adjourned in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, House Bill 1307 easily cleared the House with bipartisan support. It would make it impermissible for a defendant to argue they committed a crime on impulse, after learning their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Democratic sponsor state Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada said she expected the measure to easily clear the Senate. Instead, three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to lay it aside for the year.
“I was at a loss for words, really. This is a no brainer. This is a bipartisan bill. It should just be passed right away,” Titone said.
The Democrats who voted against the bill said they support the policy, but that legislature’s main focus needs to be on dealing with the pandemic and the state budget. They argued the defense is rarely used and the bill can wait another year.
“Many good bills can not go forward this year,” said state Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs and chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs seemed exasperated with Democrats’ move, asking why other bills could go forward. The two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted to move the panic defense bill to the Senate floor.
“If a bill involves mobile homes and has the right sponsors, it can pass out today,” he said sarcastically referring to a different Democratic bill that cleared the committee shortly before the no vote on HB-1307. After the vote, Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, another committee member, said it wasn’t an easy vote.
“I just killed multiple bills that I’ve been working on for months, and it is incredibly difficult — these are incredibly difficult decisions for us to have to make,” Gonzales said.
Titone is Colorado’s first openly transgender lawmaker, and said even if the gay and transgender panic defense is rarely used, it should not even be an option. She said it’s especially relevant given the current Black Lives Matter movement and that Black transgender women, in particular, are assaulted and murdered at disproportionate rates.
“Let's stop it every way we can,” Titone said about violence against people of color. “Whether it's a cop doing it, or whether it's somebody in a relationship that uses this defense to harm or kill somebody that should not get away with this.”
Titone said she and Republican state Rep. Matt Soper of Delta will ask to start a new version of the bill in the House, with hopes that it will see a different outcome when it reaches the Senate.
In recent years a number of states have moved to ban the gay panic defense. It was used in the case of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998 in one of the nation’s highest-profile hate crimes against a gay person.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, gay and trans panic defenses have been allowed in about half of U.S. states since the 1950s.