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District Attorney Harris to hold 'Gay Panic' conference

By Erica Holt, Bay City News Service

July 19, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO(BCN) - In her latest effort to combat hate crimes, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is hosting a national conference for criminal experts Thursday and Friday to discuss so-called "gay panic'' courtroom defense strategies.

According to the Transgender Law Center, defense attorneys have used "gay panic'' strategies to blame gay and transgender murder victims, often to reduce defendants' charges before a case reaches trial.

In recent California cases, defendants have apparently claimed that they did not intentionally kill their victims, but upon learning a victim was gay or transgender, flew into a panicked rage and were therefore responsible for lesser crimes, according to the Transgender Law Center.

The district attorney's office reports that panic strategies have been used in cases when the victim is gay, as in the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, or transgender, as in Gwen Araujo's 2002 murder, albeit unsuccessfully, whose assailants killed her when they discovered the beautiful woman they knew actually was a biological male.

"We haven't seen gay panic go through San Francisco, as far as we know,'' but it impacts the entire justice system, district attorney's spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh said.

"The Bay Area is uniquely situated to provide leadership on this issue. We're home to one of the biggest LGBTQ communities in country,'' she said.

A 2004 California Attorney General's report shows San Francisco has the second highest number of hate crimes in the state, 144, second only to Los Angeles.

Tina D'Elia, who is participating in the symposium on behalf of Community United Against Violence, said she hopes the conference will be the beginning of an "end to hate violence against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) communities.''

"A lot of these cases that I see are transgender women of color with families who don't have a lot of money and a lot of resources,'' she said.

D'Elia highlights community involvement and awareness, as well as keeping an open dialogue with law enforcement agencies as key in reducing all forms of hate crimes.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, who is expected to attend the conference, has a bill in the legislature that would require juries be educated about bias against victims, as well as provide funding for educational materials about panic strategies.

AB 1160, or the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, has cleared the Assembly and will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee sometime in August, according to Lieber's office.

"We're very excited the state is taking a stance,'' said Chris Daley of the Transgender Law Center. "It's a great first step,'' Daley said, whose center helped organize the conference.

Daley said the district attorney's office approached a number of community groups starting last fall to start planning the symposium, and have implemented training for law enforcement officials. It's "important because of a disconnect that has existed for a long time between law enforcement and transgender communities,'' Daley said.

During the two-day conference, national leaders, academics, law enforcement representatives and the families of victims will discuss challenging the legitimacy of the panic courtroom defense that, according to the district attorney's office, exploits negative stereotypes in order to justify criminal actions.

The district attorney's office hopes that exposure of "gay panic" strategies will help to ensure that victims are not targeted because of gender identity, race or sexual orientation and hate crime perpetrators held accountable for their actions.

Others tentatively scheduled to attend the conference are Gloria Allred, civil rights attorney; Sylvia Guerrero, mother of Gwen Araujo; Chris Lamiero, prosecutor in the Gwen Araujo case; and Dave O'Malley, the lead investigator in the Matthew Shepard case.

A community town hall meeting in conjunction with the conference is planned for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street.

The conference is Thursday and Friday at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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