Black and gay mayoral candidate Marcus McMillian’s death in Clarksdale, Mississippi just got a whole lot more complicated. Lawrence Reed, the man accused of killing him, appears to be laying the groundwork for a so-called “gay panic” defense, and he might just get away with it, highlighting the justice system’s troubled relationship with cases in which sexual orientation is clearly a factor.
Thanks to the fact that Mississippi lacks hate crime statutes, the prosecutor can’t even prosecute the case as such, although federal agencies may become involved. The fact that Reed is already preparing a “gay panic” defense is distressing, as every time this pseudo-scientific defense gets media attention, it lends ammunition to homophobes.
According to the story Reed and his family are telling, he was forced to kill McMillian in self-defense after the mayoral candidate made sexual advances and refused to take no for an answer. A sister is claiming that Reed showed up at her house moments after making a panicked phone call, covered in injuries suggestive of a fight, and that Reed strangled McMillian with the chain on his wallet. The claim that Reed “panicked” doesn’t explain, of course, why McMillian’s body was discovered beaten and burned; these actions speak of a deliberate and sustained hateful attack, not a flighty decision.
And let’s examine that flighty decision more carefully. The concept of “gay panic” or “homosexual panic” dates back to the early 20th century, when psychiatric professionals theorized that someone might find sexual advances so horrific that he would “snap,” effectively entering a state of temporary psychosis. This was also, of course, an era in which homosexuality itself was considered deviant behavior; are we really going to trust early 20th century psychiatry for detailed analysis of human behavior in cases like this?
With the idea embedded in our culture, the “gay panic” defense has been used on numerous occasions in courthouses across the world, along with its variant, “trans panic.” The trial of the killers of Gwen Arujo, for example, ended in jury deadlock on multiple occasions because of the use of the trans panic defense. Matthew Shephard’s attackers also attempted to claim “gay panic,” as did Ferdinand Ambach, a Hungarian tourist who successfully argued it in his own trial for the violent murder of Ronald Brown.
When pseudo-scientific concepts like “gay panic” are used, they legitimize homophobia and hatred of other marginalized groups by suggesting that the very existence of some people is so offensive that it can cause a temporary onset of psychosis. It also stigmatizes true cases of mental illness and psychotic episodes, particularly for jurors who aren’t familiar with mental health subjects, and may come away from such cases with a warped notion of how mental illness works. And, of course, using the “gay panic” defense can mean serving a reduced sentence or no jail time at all, if you can successfully argue that a death was a tragic accident that occurred during an incident of diminished capacity, rather than a murder.
I can’t help but think of the infamous “Twinkie defense” claimed in the murder of Harvey Milk, in which defended Dan White attempted to argue that his actions were linked to depression, with the consumption of Twinkies as evidence of his altered mental state. Furthermore, his attorneys claimed, the radical change in diet contributed even further to his diminished capacity, making it legally impossible to hold him responsible for the assassinations of Milk and George Moscone.
The fact that bogus, hateful “science” is still being used in legal arguments is a sharp indictment of how far we’ve come…and how far we haven’t.
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes