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