House legislators start third attempt to ban ‘gay panic’ defense in Iowa

By: - January 18, 2023 11:18 am

Lawmakers in the Iowa House are trying to for the third time to ban the so-called "gay panic" defense for violent crimes. (Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

Iowa House legislators are trying for a third time to enact legislation banning “gay panic” legal defenses in Iowa.

An Iowa House Judiciary subcommittee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would prevent defendants accused of violent crimes from using a “temporary insanity” defense to lessen charges in cases where they discovered the victim was gay or transgender. Defendants in other states have won reduced sentences in court with this argument, often called “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses.

This is the third year that House legislators introduced legislation that would ban these defenses. In 2020 and 2021, the House passed the legislation unanimously, but the legislation was not taken up by the Senate. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, who led the subcommittee on the bill, said he could not speak for why senators did not consider the bill in previous sessions, but that he is willing to “do whatever it takes to get this done.”

“My hope is that persistence pays off,” Kaufmann said. “This legislation is just common sense. And I’m feeling like this might be a year to actually get this done.”

A speaker with the Iowa State Bar Association recommended some language clarification in the bill, and LGBTQ+ advocates spoke in support of the legislation at the subcommittee meeting.

Damian Thompson with Iowa Safe Schools said removing this defense was critical in Iowa. He cited the 2016 murder of Kedarie Johnson, a gender-fluid teenager from Burlington. Two men were convicted of first-degree murder for killing Johnson after learning the youth had male genitalia. They were accused of suffocating Johnson with a plastic bag, shooting them and dousing the body of in bleach to conceal evidence.

“The fact that the panic defense is even legal in the code is a bit of an insult to the LGBTQ community here in Iowa and kind of dishonors the memory of students like Kedarie Johnson who was murdered for their gender identity in Burlington a few years ago,” Thompson said. “So we’re looking forward to seeing bipartisan support and getting it out of the House again.”

The bill advances to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

This is not the only legislation on gender identity and sexual orientation that House committees are discussing. House Republicans proposed several new requirements for Iowa schools which include banning instruction or material on LGBTQ+ topics for students in kindergarten through third grade, as well as not allowing schools to take steps affirming changes to a student’s preferred name or pronouns without written consent from their parent or guardian.

Kaufmann said those proposals are unrelated to the “gay panic” defense legislation.

“This bill and those bills couldn’t possibly be more diametric,” he said. “So I’m dealing with each bill in a vacuum, and this bill is simply the right thing to do.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.