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Councilmember Grosso re-introduces legislation to ban the use of “gay/trans panic” defenses in D.C.

For Immediate Release:
September 17, 2019
 
Contact:
Matthew Nocella, 202.724.8105 - mnocella@dccouncil.us

Councilmember Grosso re-introduces legislation to ban the use of “gay/trans panic” defenses in D.C.

Washington, D.C. – At the D.C. Council’s first legislative meeting after summer recess, Councilmember David Grosso re-introduced his legislation to counter the use of “gay/trans panic” defenses, which seek to utilize the stigma associated with the sexual orientation, gender identity, or other identity expression of victims to excuse violent crimes.

“I am a passionate supporter of the human rights of criminal defendants, a fair and swift trial, and for alternatives to incarceration,” said Grosso. “All of that is possible without resorting to a defense that is premised on bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.”

The Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019 would 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. The bill also requires an anti-bias jury instruction in criminal trials if requested by the prosecutor or the defendant.

“The bill makes one thing clear: a defense that exploits bias is simply unacceptable,” said Grosso.

Councilmember Grosso originally introduced the bill in February 2017 as the Secure a Fair and Equitable (SAFE) Trial Act. Over the summer, Grosso worked closely with LGBTQ advocates ahead of re-introduction and fulfilled their request to rename the bill in honor of Tony Hunter, a gay man, and Bella Evangelista, a transgender woman.

“LGBTQ+ panic defenses have long stood as a symbol of dangerous and outdated thinking,” said D’Arcy Kemnitz, Executive Director of the National LGBT Bar Association. “The Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019 would send a clear message: Discrimination has no validity in the courtroom.”

“Victims of crime, their families, and their communities experience enough trauma without having to shoulder the blame for their murder or assault or watch their loved one’s name maligned as they seek justice,” said David Mariner, Executive Director of The D.C. Center for the LGBT Community. “I greatly appreciate Councilmember Grosso’s continued engagement with the LGBTQ+ community on this issue and for naming the bill in honor of Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista–two victims whose cases were marred by the discriminatory statements that are used in the making of these panic defenses.”

“This bill would prohibit the misuse of a victim’s identity as an excuse for perpetrating a murder or violence. The ‘panic’ defense attempts to justify a criminal act motivated by a defendant’s racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or other bias. This Act is a necessary step to address an anachronism in our legal system that demeans and devalues the lives of vulnerable people. These defenses simply have no place in our justice system and it is time for them to go,” said Sasha Buchert, Senior Attorney at Lambda Legal.

In August, the Washington Post reported that D.C. saw the highest number of bias-motivated attacks last year and had the highest per capita hate-crime rate of any major city in the country.

“In this time of heightened rhetoric of hate and violence, it is incredibly important that we act to eliminate bias whenever we can. I appreciate the renewed grassroots support for this legislation, including the many letters and resolutions Advisory Neighborhood Commissions have recently approved, and urge the Council to move swiftly,” said Grosso.

Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Robert White, Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh, Brandon Todd, and Charles Allen joined Grosso as co-introducers of the legislation.

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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

BILL TEXT | PRESS RELEASE

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.

Copy of Hunter-Evangelista - Twitter.png

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Special Education Rights for Youth Defendants Amendment Act of 2019

Special Education Rights for Youth Defendants Amendment Act of 2019

Introduced: January 8, 2019

Co-introducers: Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Robert White, Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, Kenyan McDuffie, Charles Allen, and Vincent Gray

BILL TEXT | PRESS RELEASE

Summary: To amend Chapter 7 Title 16 of the District of Columbia Official Code to establish a panel of special education attorneys to represent students with identified special education needs who are involved in the criminal justice system.

Councilmember Grosso's Introduction Statement:

Today, I am introducing the Special Education Rights for Youth Defendants Amendment Act of 2019.

This legislation amends Chapter 7 of Title 16 of the DC Code to establish a panel of special education attorneys at the Superior Court to represent students with identified special education needs who are involved in the criminal justice system. It requires the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants to issue a grant to the Superior Court for the purpose of funding all costs associated with this panel.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (also known as “I.D.E.A”) is a federal law that ensures children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive free appropriate public education, just like other children. According to this law, children with special needs are eligible for special education and related services up until the age of 22.

Currently, the Superior Court designates and approves a panel of special education attorneys for children with special needs in Family Court proceedings. However, adult students that appear in Criminal proceedings do not receive the same treatment even though they are owed special education and related services pursuant to I.D.E.A.

According to the United States Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, students with disabilities represent a large portion of students in correctional facilities. In D.C., over 80% of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (“DYRS”) committed youth have special education needs, and over 90% of the DYRS-committed population is diagnosed with either an Axis 1 or Axis 2 diagnosis.

Special education attorneys provide a number of critical benefits for defendants, to include aiding the court on Fifth Amendment issues related to Miranda warnings and defendant confessions; helping a judge during sentencing by determining which programs, treatments, and placements are most appropriate; and ensuring defendants successfully receive the full extent of the protections pursuant to I.D.E.A.

Last year, I convened a multi-stakeholder working group of over 80 participants comprised of students, Councilmembers and staff, school leaders, advocacy groups, and executive agency directors and staff, including DYRS, the Department of Corrections, and the D.C. Superior Court. Together, we grappled with how best to improve collaboration and coordination among entities responsible for the education and care of students.

As a result, we produced a report of over 40 policy and legislative recommendations that will help improve educational outcomes. One of those recommendations was to create this bill.

This legislation will go a long way in helping ensure older students with special needs are adequately represented, and have a real opportunity to earn a high school diploma or G.E.D. and lead a more productive and successful life.

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Students in the Care of D.C. Coordinating Committee Act of 2018

Students in the Care of D.C. Coordinating Committee Act of 2018

Introduced: September 18, 2018

Co-introducers: Councilmembers Robert White, Brianne K. Nadeau, Brandon Todd, and Charles Allen.

BILL TEXT | PRESS RELEASE

Summary: To establish a Students in the Care of D.C. Coordinating Committee to identify challenges and resolve issues that students in detainment, commitment, incarceration, and foster care face in order improve educational outcomes.

Councilmember Grosso's Introduction Statement:

Today, I am introducing the Students in the Care of D.C. Coordinating Committee Act of 2018, along with my colleagues, Councilmembers Charles Allen, Robert White, Brandon Todd, and Brianne K. Nadeau.

This legislation establishes a multi-stakeholder committee to identify challenges and resolve issues that students in detainment, commitment, incarceration, and foster care face in order improve educational outcomes.

On October 4, 2017, the Committee on Education held a public roundtable to examine educational opportunities for students under the supervision or care of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Court Social Services, Pre-Trial Services Agency, Department of Corrections, and Bureau of Prisons.

The roundtable revealed that many students in the care of DC experience significant barriers to earning a high school diploma. Many of these students are placed outside of the District of Columbia and are highly mobile. Consequently, they experience issues enrolling in school, obtaining transferrable credit, and receiving special education and related services. Consequently, these disruptions negatively affect the young person’s ability to move forward and become successful in their educational endeavors.

Fortunately, both public and government witnesses agreed that creating a working group to further tackle some of these issues was the next logical step.

From February to June, I convened a working group of over 80 participants comprised of students, Councilmembers and staff, executive agency

directors and staff, representatives from D.C. Superior Court, school leaders, and advocacy groups. For five months we grappled with how to best improve collaboration and coordination among entities responsible for the education and care of students.

As a result, we produced a report of over 40 policy and legislative recommendations that will help improve educational outcomes. One of those recommendation was to create a coordinating committee. For more information about the report, please visit my website.

I am confident this legislation will provide better educational continuity while strengthening and expanding critical services to ensure that our most vulnerable youth are afforded every available opportunity for success.

Thank you to everyone that participated in the working group and helped make this bill a reality. I look forward to all of the good work that lies ahead.
 

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