Secure A Fair & Equitable (SAFE) Trial Act of 2017

Introduced: February 7, 2017

Co-introducers: Councilmembers Jack Evans, Robert White Brianne Nadeau, and Mary Cheh

Summary: To amend Chapter 1 of Title 23 to curtail the availability and effectiveness of defenses that seek to partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or other inherent identity, is to blame for the defendant’s violent action and to require an anti-bias jury instruction in criminal trials if requested by the prosecutor or the defendant.

Councilmember Grosso's Introduction Statement:

Thank you Chairman Mendelson. Today, along with my colleagues Brianne Nadeau, Jack Evans, and Robert White, I am introducing the “Secure A Fair & Equitable Trial Act of 2017”, which we are calling the SAFE Trial Act.

This legislation would curtail the use of defenses that seek to excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent action.

You may remember in 2008 when Tony Hunter died after being attacked in Shaw while on his way to a gay bar.

According to court records, the man arrested for the attack told police that he punched Hunter in self-defense after Hunter touched his crotch and buttocks in a sexually suggestive way.

There were many other factors in the case that made it complex, and could have resulted in a similar outcome, but the fact that the assailant blamed the victim’s sexual orientation for his violence was disturbing and inappropriate.

This argument is known as the “gay panic” defense and it seeks to blame a victim of a violent attack for provoking the violence by making a sexual comment, action, or simply by expressing their identity.

It is used around the country and throughout D.C.’s history.

The same argument has been used by individuals accused of attacking or murdering transgender women, arguing that the victim’s transgender identity amounted to deception and therefor justified a violent response.

That is essentially the argument that the killer of Bella Evangelista made after he killed her in 2003, also in D.C..

The SAFE Trial Act would end the use of such arguments in the District of Columbia.

The American Bar Association has carefully considered this topic and has voted in support of this type of legislation—in fact the SAFE Trial Act is based on the model language put forward by the ABA.

Anyone who knows me knows that I argue passionately for the human rights of criminal defendants, a fair and swift trial, and for alternatives to incarceration.

All of that is possible without resorting to a defense that is premised on bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals

A defense that exploits bias simply should not be acceptable.

The SAFE Trial Act is not limited to LGBT victims, but also covers any situation where an individual might seek to excuse their violent actions on the basis of another person’s identity.

The bill also requires that a jury be instructed to not let bias play a role in their deliberations during a criminal trial if requested by the prosecutor or the defendant.

In this time of heightened rhetoric of hate and violence, it is incredibly important that we act to eliminate bias whenever we can.

I welcome any co-sponsors.

Thank you.