Last week, New Hampshire became the 18th state to ban the heinous LGBTQ+ “panic” defense – a legal strategy wherein defendants charged with violent crimes weaponize their victim’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity to bolster other defenses, such as insanity, provocation, or self-defense. When employed, the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense asks the court to excuse the defendant’s violent actions on the basis of their victim’s LGBTQ+ identity. Whether or not this appeal is successful in court, every time a defendant invokes the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense, they reinforce the dangerous and discredited belief that LGBTQ+ lives are worth less than others.
The passage of a ban on the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense in New Hampshire is more than just a cause for celebration, it is also a beacon of hope in the political turmoil of recent years. Notably, this bill was the first of its kind to pass and be signed into law in a state with a Republican majority in the legislature and a Republican governor. While plenty of bills attempting to ban use of the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense have been introduced in states with similar political make-ups, none had previously successfully become law. NH Representative Shaun Filiault, an Independent and the original sponsor of New Hampshire’s LGBTQ+ “panic” legislation, believes that the law’s passage proves it is possible to find common ground on LGBTQ+ issues.
Rep. Filiault, who is openly gay, first learned about the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense while in law school. “I was disgusted by it,” he says. “It was a major inequity in the law. To think that my identity could be used against me if I were killed? That is simply unacceptable.” Elected in 2022, Rep. Filiault chose to run for office in part because of frustration with failed LGBTQ+ “panic” defense legislation. “The incumbent, whom I primaried, voted against a similar bill in 2022 that would have banned the defense. When I learned that, I decided that I needed to do something.” Once in office, banning use of the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense became his first priority. “I knew it was an uphill battle, but it was worth the fight.”
The bill, HB315, was introduced in January at the beginning of the legislative session. Early on, it became a bipartisan effort. Rep. Katelyn Kuttab, a Republican, reached out to Rep. Filiault and asked to co-sponsor his bill. Together, they were able to build a coalition of support for the issue. “Generally, people were responsive to the bill. It is a matter of public safety after all – nobody deserves to be killed because of their identity,” says Rep. Filiault.
While the bill managed to move through the House, the Senate presented a bigger challenge. “We had to make deals to get it through the Senate, but the process reminded me that it is ok to make deals and negotiate,” Rep. Filiault reflects. “We learn that in law school – you need to know what the ‘other side’ needs and wants, and be willing to come to the table. It’s a humbling perspective, but we were able to get something really important done by listening to each other.” This summer, the bill passed in the Senate and was sent to New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s desk. On August 8th, he signed the bill into law. The law will go into effect on January 1, 2024.
For the LGBTQ+ community in New Hampshire, the law sends a strong message affirming their dignity, and helps ensure that their identities won’t be used against them in court. “Nationwide, it shows that there is hope. Hope is not lost,” Rep. Filiault says. “If we work together and fight hard for good legislation, we can move the needle.” Optimistic about the future, Rep. Filiault believes that HB315 opened the door for more bills advancing LGBTQ+ equality in New Hampshire. “I now have great connections with colleagues who helped this bill move along. By creating common ground on this important issue, we lowered the political temperature.”
The National LGBTQ+ Bar is proud to be leading the the effort to ban the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense across the country. In 2013, The American Bar Association (ABA) unanimously approved a resolution—introduced by the National LGBTQ+ Bar—calling for an end to this heinous defense strategy. Since then, the District of Columbia and the states of California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado, Virginia, Vermont, Oregon, Maryland, New Mexico, and now New Hampshire have banned the defense. Legislation is pending in Congress and in Wisconsin, and is awaiting the governor’s signature in Delaware. Learn more about how you can help here.