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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowa House lawmakers for a third time have moved forward legislation that would prevent a defendant from using a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity as a mitigating factor if charged with a violent crime or assault.
The legal strategy asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.
The so-called “gay panic defense” has been used successfully in other states, Keenan Crow of One Iowa told a subcommittee that voted unanimously Wednesday to move the bill to the full House Judiciary Committee.
Subcommittee member and freshman Rep. Sami Scheetz, D-Cedar Rapids, said he was “shocked” to learn such a defense could be used in legal proceedings, and voted to advance the bill.
Perpetrators who use the legal strategy claim a defense of diminished capacity. They argue that learning another person's sexual orientation or gender identity — in a non-violent sexual advance or come-on from a LGBTQ-plus person — led to a loss of self-control and the subsequent assault.
“What this bill aims to do is not excuse these assaults or murders simply because their victim is a LGBTQ person,” Crow told the subcommittee of House lawmakers.
Damian Thompson, director of public policy and communication for Iowa Safe Schools, cited the 2016 killing of Kedarie Johnson, a gender-fluid Burlington teenager who was shot twice, his head covered by a plastic bag and another shoved down his throat. Johnson’s body doused with bleach by a man who intended to have sex with the 16-year-old, who often presented as female and was dressed in women's clothing on the night of his death.
“The fact the panic defense is even legal in the code is a bit of an insult to the LGBTQ community here in Iowa,” Thompson said. “And it kind of dishonors the memory of students like Kedarie Johnson.”
The legislation was approved unanimously by the House in 2020, but the Legislature suspended its session a week later because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers again unanimously approved the bill in 2021, but it was never taken up by the Senate.
“I find the use of this defense to be preposterous and heinous,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who again is managing the bill. “It does not pass the common-sense test. This shouldn’t be a defense for anybody.”
Kaufmann said he expects the bill will again pass the House unanimously, but said he could not speak for why senators did not consider the bill in previous sessions.
“I’m just hopeful that our persistence pays off,” he told reporters. “I stand ready to answer any questions that may be needed to get this down to the governor’s desk.”
Kaufmann added he’s “found quite a bit of support" for the bill in the Senate and is optimistic it will be signed into law this year.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, and Senate Republican leadership did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment on the bill.
The move, though, comes at the same time Republicans are pushing forward legislation that would prohibit teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in certain grades, and would prohibit schools from taking steps from affirming or recognizing a student’s preferred gender identity in school without written consent from their parents.
“This bill and those bills couldn’t possibly be more diametrically different,” Kaufmann said, responding to a reporter’s question. “So I am dealing with each bill in a vacuum, and this bill is simply the right thing to do.”
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