VTSupremeCourt

The State Supreme Court in Montpelier, as seen last year. A bill passed by the Senate would prohibit the "panic defense" being used by persons accused of assaulting a person on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender. 

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MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to its version of a bill barring the so-called “panic defense” from being used by defendants accused of assaulting LBGTQ persons.

The bill, H. 128, bars defendants from justifying the use of force against a person due to knowledge or perception of that person’s sexual orientation or gender. It also bans evidence of a nonviolent romantic or sexual advance by a crime victim towards the defendant being used to mitigate the severity of such an offense.

The Senate version of the bill, which passed 29-0 — Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint was presiding and did not vote — makes one significant addition to the House version by extending the prohibition to the sentencing phase of a trial. The House version of H. 128 was silent on sentencing.

A third reading vote is scheduled for the Senate on Thursday. If the bill passes as expected the House would have to decide whether to concur with the amended version. It passed the House 144-1 in March.

Speaking in favor of passage, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said he’s pleased the bill “makes it clear that Vermont will never allow a senseless argument to act as cover for personal, societal or systemic prejudices and biases.”

Campion said the bill brings to mind the 1998 death of Matthew Shepherd, and “the pain he suffered, that his parents suffered and those in the LGBTQ community suffered and suffer still to this very day. This bill ensures Vermont courtrooms never allow such obvious bigotry to come into trial, to heap further suffering onto the victim.”

“As a gay man, I take great pride in this body taking this step, another step in a long line of steps it has taken to undo, reverse and end long-held and entrenched societal bigotries,” Campion said.

Sen. Dick Sears D-Bennington, presenting the bill for the Judiciary Committee, noted that the state is working to add protections for LBGTQ persons at a time when more than 30 states are considering legislation limiting transgender rights, including access to health care. He said 32 percent of cases where panic defense has been used resulted in reduction to lesser charges, including in homicides, “and in many of those cases they were particularly violent attacks.”

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One out of five LGBTQ persons and one in four transgender persons experiences a hate crime in their lifetime, Sears said.

The Senate also gave final approval to S. 99, a bill that repeals the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits based on childhood physical abuse. That bill, addressing the concerns of abuse survivors at the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington and the Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster, allows survivors to bring civil actions regardless of how much time has passed.

The current statute of limitations for physical abuse is three years; the sexual abuse statute of limitations was previously repealed.

S. 99 passed by a vote of 29-0 on Tuesday and on voice vote Wednesday on third reading.

The Senate also referred the House’s proposed changes to the bottle bill, H. 175, to the Rules Committee, as it arrived at the Senate after crossover. Balint said Monday that the bill was unlikely to be taken up by the Senate this session.

Earlier in Wednesday’s session, Balint, D-Windham, asked for a moment of silence and reflection on the guilty verdict issued Tuesday in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. Following that, Balint recited the poem ”Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes.

“Some of the language may sound dated to us, but I hope we see past that and understand he spoke not just from his experience,” Balint said of Hughes (1902-1967). “He was speaking for a nation seeking justice.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.