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Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019

Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019

Introduced: September 17, 2019

Co-introducers: Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Robert White, Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh, Brandon Todd, and Charles Allen


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, Robert White, Charles Allen, Brandon Todd, Mary Cheh, and Elissa Silverman, I am introducing the “Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019.”

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.

At the request of community members, we have named the bill after Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista, two victims whose cases were marred by the discriminatory statements that are used in the making this so-called panic defense.

In 2008, Tony Hunter died after being attacked in Shaw while on his way to a gay bar.

The man arrested for the assault told police that he punched Hunter in self-defense after Hunter touched him in a sexually suggestive way.

There were many other factors in the case that made it complex, but the fact that the assailant blamed the victim’s sexual orientation for the attacker’s violent actions 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..

This legislation 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 Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019 is based on the model language put forward by the ABA.

I am a passionate supporter of 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.

This bill 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.

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DOC responds to Grosso letter on treatment of transgender inmates, educational services for detained students

On February 6, 2018, Councilmember Grosso sent a letter to Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth, in light of the cancellation of the additional oversight hearing that the Committee on the Judiciary had called and the fact that Councilmember Grosso would be unable to attend the DOC Performance Oversight Hearing. The questions focused on three topics:

  • DOC policies/practices for housing transgender inmates;
  • volunteering at DOC;
  •  and education-related matters.

On March 13, Director Booth sent a response letter that highlighted some areas of concern but also some progress.

In 2017, there were 48 inmates identified as transgender. The housing process seems to be going as contemplated when it was changed around 2008, with two exceptions: transgender inmates are “provided standard jail attire and privileges consistent with the gender of their housing assignment” which is an issue because most transgender women are housed in the men’s unit (based on their own request)—they should get gender-appropriate clothing; and transgender inmates who were on hormone therapy prior to incarceration may be continued—they should be continued barring a medical reason not to, and even if they were not getting it in the community, they should get it in the jail if it's medically appropriate. 

Director Booth also reported out on a Memorandum of Agreement between Department of Correction, D.C. Public Schools, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, that articulated these agencies respective obligations regarding educational services to students committed to DOC as pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates.  It is based in part on the recommendations by OSSE in its 2016 Letter of Determination regarding state complaints about special education services at DOC.

Both Councilmember Grosso's original letter and DOC's response can be found below.