Colorado lawmakers try to resurrect bill to ban gay panic defense

Among the many legislative proposals lost in a recent flurry of coronavirus-inspired bill-killing at the Colorado Capitol, one may be resurrected.

The bill would ban defendants in court from trying to justify violence by blaming a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity — the “panic defense.”

It costs nothing to administer, has no organized opposition and could pass with mere minutes of discussion. But Democrats voted to kill it at the committee level last week as lawmakers, suddenly strapped for time and cash after a more than two-month coronavirus recess, were scuttling dozens of other proposals that also may have passed with little resistance.

LGBTQ advocates say it’s hard to measure how often the “panic defense” is used in Colorado — history shows that those who have tried to use it have not been successful — but that the bill is needed to protect members of the community, and particularly black, transgender women. Those women’s voices weren’t heard when the bill didn’t move forward, said sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.

Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat and the chair of the committee that postponed the bill, said the vote had nothing to do with the bill’s content. It was the first day back the hiatus, he said, and lawmakers had to nix a lot of bills. Plus, the “panic defense” hadn’t been used successfully in the state, so he and others didn’t feel it was an especially urgent matter.

Senate sponsor Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican, said he’s not heard a good reason for why the bill died, but he added, “Quite frankly, someone dropped the ball. I don’t care who. I just wanted it picked up.”

He may get his wish.

Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat and the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, says she is introducing a new bill with Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, that she hopes will be fast-tracked and send the right message. She sent a letter to the bill’s Senate sponsors and leadership Monday, urging them to reconsider. On social media she asked people to sign a petition in support.

“Right now, a loophole in our law allows the opportunity to justify hateful violence, potentially encouraging perpetrators to perform heinous acts in the name of ‘fear,’” Titone wrote. “We must act swiftly and decisively NOW to remove any excuse that motivates hateful acts.”

Titone said this is an opportunity for senators to make right what they wronged.

Through tears, Titone said it’s her job to stand up for trans women, particularly black women, because they don’t have representation. “It’s what I’m here for.”

Staff writer Alex Burness contributed to this report.

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