The Vermont Senate approved legislation in a 29-0 vote Wednesday that would prohibit the use of the LGBTQ “panic” defense in court cases.
The provision, H.128, prevents a defendant at trial or sentencing from justifying violent actions by citing a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Such defenses have been used with success to excuse assaults on — and even the murder of — LGBTQ people across the country.
While this legal strategy is not known to have been used in Vermont, lawmakers touted the bill as an important step forward in curbing violence against members of the LGBTQ community.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who is gay, said Wednesday on the virtual Senate floor that the bill makes it clear that Vermont “will never allow a senseless legal argument to act as cover for personal, societal or systemic prejudices and biases.”
“This bill ensures Vermont courtrooms never allow such obvious bigotry to come into trial — to heap further suffering onto the victim,” Campion said. “As a gay man, I take great pride in this body taking this step — another step in a long line of steps it has taken — to undo, reverse, and end long-held and entrenched societal bigotries.”
The Senate is expected to give final approval to the legislation Thursday, at which point it would return to the Vermont House. Last month, the House passed a version of the bill on a vote of 144-1. The Senate version clarifies that the “panic” defense would be banned at sentencing — and at trial.
The change sparked controversy in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several panel members expressed reservations about the legislation and one drew fire on social media for using a racist trope to explain her opposition to limiting what information can be used by a judge.
The committee ended up voting 3-2 in favor of the amendment and 5-0 to move the bill to the Senate floor.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the judiciary panel, touched on the nature of the debate in committee. “We urge your concurrence, but I wanted to make clear where the committee was split,” he said Wednesday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, presided over the chamber Wednesday — filling in for Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who was busy participating in events with Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, in Burlington.
As such, Balint, the first openly gay person to lead the Senate, did not get to vote on the measure, but on Tuesday she expressed her support.
“There is a history in this country of negating violence against LGBTQ people with very bizarre defense tactics,” Balint said. “I’m excited that we are taking this up.”