Gay Panic Defense in Philly Murder Trial?
A man on trial for murdering his friend in Philadelphia initially indicated that he would use a “gay panic defense,” in which he would argue that he flew into a rage following an unwanted sexual advance. Fortunately, a judge quickly put a kibosh on the idea.
- Gay panic cited in murder of Matthew Shephard, others
- Tactic attempted as part of insanity defense
- Sexual advances are not justification for homicide
Panic or Self Defense?
A bizarre set of circumstances that led to a murder will not provoke a criminal defense that attempts to justify and institutionalize homophobia in our legal system, thanks to a judge’s ruling last year. The trial of Raymond Armstrong, 35, began this week in Philadelphia for the 2008 killing of his friend and part-time roommate, 37-year-old Anthony Williams.
A loud fight took place in Williams’ house one night, followed by Armstrong emerging naked into the street and announcing that he had killed his friend. Sure enough, police found Williams beaten and strangled inside.
During the pretrial hearing in 2010, Armstrong suggested he might use a gay panic defense, a tactic that would claim the defendant was so freaked out by another man coming onto him that he lost control of his actions and committed the murder in a fit of passion. The judge in the trial said no, so Armstrong might instead focus his defense on self-defense and the argument that he was fighting off a sexual assault.
Gay panic is not found in Pennsylvania’s criminal code, nor is it a justification for violence or homicide in any jurisdiction. But that hasn’t stopped other defendants around the nation from invoking their own homophobia in attempts to get off the hook for murder.
- In the most famous case, two men who tortured and beat Wyoming college student Matthew Shephard to death in 1998 were barred from using gay panic as a mitigating factor. Each man was given two life sentences in prison. Shephard’s story eventually sparked a federal hate crimes law to help protect LGBT citizens from violence.
- In 1996, Jonathan Schmitz was convicted of second degree murder for shooting Scott Amedure after Amendure admitted his attraction to Schmitz on the Jenny Jones show. Schmitz’s gay panic defense tactic didn’t work either.
- MMA fighter Dale Edward Cutler was sentenced to 11 to 25 years in prison last year when he beat up a man he woke up in bed with. An attempt to mount an appeal based on a gay panic defense was unsuccessful.
- There was a quasi-successful use of gay panic defense in 2009 when Joseph Biedermann was acquitted of murder for stabbing Thomas Hauser 61 times. The key in this case was the jury buying Biedermann’s story that he was fending off an attempted rape, not just a proposition.
Defendants also occasionally try to invoke a trans panic defense, claiming to lose control when a sexual partner thought to be a woman turns out to be a man. However, it will be difficult to find a criminal code in the United States that treats the surprise existence of a penis as an excuse for murder.
Construction Workers, Watch Out
The bottom line: Of course people have a right to defend themselves from assault. And of course it’s not okay to attack someone for sexual advances that fall short of assault, be they gay or straight. But common sense and human decency don’t stop defendants from crying gay panic.
“It certainly has been tried a number of times,” says Thomas Ude, Jr, senior staff attorney for the LGBT civil rights organization Lambda Legal. “Different prosecutors and a number of law review articles have written on the way to address it and how to challenge it. Some of them make what I think is a fairly obvious point– unless it’s a very serious sexual assault, simply making a pass at someone is not generally seen as something that justifies homicide.”
If sexual advances were a green light for murder, he points out, women would have the right to shoot innumerable cat-calling men every day just walking down a city block. Construction workers, watch out.
Gender Neutral Defense
The details of the Armstrong trial are still murky and appear to involve drug use and strange behavior prior to the killing of Anthony Williams, as well as Armstrong invoking himself as a god in the aftermath. We may never know for sure what took place inside the house; the key question for jurors will be whether they are convinced that Williams actually tried to attack Armstrong, not whether Williams was gay.
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“The appropriate inquiry is on the severity of the assault that they were being subjected to,” Ude explains. “Were they being assaulted, and then the question is whether under that particular jurisdiction’s laws, how much violence is either justified or mitigates their culpability for their actions.”
“In other words, it should be gender neutral,” he says.
As for gay panic, hopefully that’s the last we’ll hear of a concept that would put all LGBT citizens in danger if it were ever used successfully without a real claim of self defense. “It would absolutely be codifying or judicially recognizing the legitimacy of homophobia in a very literal sense,” says Ude. “It’s a pretty outrageous defense to attempt.”