Justice for Don Belton

remembering a writer and friend

About the ‘Gay Panic’ Defense

As more people link to this site, we wanted to make clear that site administrators have not and are not taking a position on Michael Griffin’s motives for murdering Don Belton, nor do we know what Michael Griffin’s legal defense will be.

We do know Griffin told police that the reason he killed Don Belton is because Belton allegedly “sexually assaulted” him. We have also made the point that such excuses are common when a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) person is murdered. Many people equate such excuses with a “gay panic defense,” which is a cultural phenomenon and *not* actually a legally recognized defense (though it has had success in courtrooms).

The phrase “gay panic defense” was coined years ago to describe a pervasive phenomenon whereby perpetrators of brutal violence against gay people claim an unwanted sexual advance to excuse their actions. The *legal* way this plays out is usually through a heat of passion or temporary insanity defense.

‘Gay panic’ does not necessarily refer to the actual motives for a defendant’s crime, nor does invoking it necessarily mean a suspect had a personal crisis of sexuality when he committed his violence. It doesn’t even mean a sexual act happened at all. The phrase now tends to reference the ways in which claiming ‘sexual assault’ by a gay person taps into society’s ‘panic’ about gay people, potentially biasing the public and a jury against the murder victim regardless of the facts of the case.

[Atlanta DA Paul Howard once remarked that some of his ‘gay panic’ cases were actually just robberies gone bad, with a defendant invoking a claim of sexual assault only because he knew it could win sympathy with a jury.]

The ‘gay panic’ phenomenon has been so pervasive that we thought it was important to reference in this case. We do not believe there is enough information about the nature of Don and Michael’s relationship or Michael’s claims of being assaulted [we still do not know exactly what Michael Griffin means by his ambiguous allegation]. We think it is important to be aware that this type of claim is common when a GLBT person is killed and should not be blindly accepted as fact nor be considered a justifiable excuse for murder regardless.

We still don’t know the facts of the case. We also have no idea whether ‘homophobia’ was a part of Michael Griffin’s motivations. But we do know homophobia and racism has been a part of the public reaction to the case, in large part because of Michael Griffin’s statement to police.

* * * *

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs exists to track and advocate against violence within and against the LGBT/GLBT communities.

articles on ‘gay panic’ can be found below:

Matthew Shepard trial

Atlanta, Georgia hosts first ‘gay panic’ legal conference

California hosts second ‘Gay Panic’ legal conference

8 comments on “About the ‘Gay Panic’ Defense

  1. Charles Wilson
    January 4, 2010

    I’m a reporter for The Associated Press in Indianapolis. I was fascinated to see Professor Belton’s friends post references to the “gay panic” defense here as it also was one of the first potential angles to the story that I thought might arise. I’d like to interview some of the people involved with the Web site if possible about why they started it, why they’re worried about that possibility, and how they think it might fly in Bloomington.
    Feel free to contact me by e-mail.
    Charlie Wilson

    • admin
      January 5, 2010

      Thanks for your inquiry and your hard work. We do think it’s important that journalists really understand the nuances of cases like these and how it impacts the community.

      The interesting thing about ‘gay panic’ is that regardless of the defense strategy in the courtroom, it already exists simply by claiming ‘sexual assault’ as a reason for premeditated murder.

      The fact that somebody would think this is a “reason” says a lot about who is expendable in this culture and how a suspect thinks this excuse will fly. It has been said that if murder was the expected response for everyone who made an unwanted sexual advance there would be an awful lot of dead straight people in this world, and it’s hard to imagine that in such cases, claiming sexual assault for a revenge killing several days later would even be considered as a viable explanation.

      Because these allegations have the effect of taking the focus off the *tragedy* and turning it into a “controversy,” the “panic” can instantly set in among anyone who becomes afraid to take a stand against this murder or even acknowledge that it has happened.

      A suspect who claims this knows this full well. It’s not that the suspect did not feel enraged or violated to the point that he felt he had to kill—but the reason he felt that way often speaks to deep roots in this culture that expect him to feel that way.

      In talking to the media, we’re taking care not to do one-on-one interviews at this time. We don’t want to hurt the case. We also don’t want this site to be viewed as strictly political; a big reason we thought it was important to call out what was happening (in terms of homophobic assumptions about Don) was so that there was a space to really honor all of who Don was. Without naming the ‘elephant in the room,’ we thought, we couldn’t begin to talk about the man himself.

      One thing about these kinds of crimes, though: While everybody in the community is grieving the loss of our good friend, sexual and racial minorities have an additional anxiety to deal with. One reason why not everybody is comfortable going on the record in these articles: Some of us in Bloomington also now fear for our own safety.

      It’s not so simple as just avoiding making ‘bad choices’ or being extra careful about who we befriend or go home with. That’s not the solution to this type of violence. Everybody has the potential to make bad choices; only some people die for them.

      The thing about the panic defense is that the wheels get set in motion long before the trial and formal defense. A suspect ‘panics’ (or claims to). His excuse can make some well-meaning community members panic about their response–[will they be seen as taking sides, or as condoning ‘assault’ if they stand up against murder?]. And any perceived lack of a strong, appropriate response means many minorities don’t feel safe because their community members don’t have their backs. The panic can perpetuate the panic.

      The panic doesn’t end with the suspect, which is why, as much as hate crime legislation can be flawed, it does seem to name the terror that these messages send and at least provide a legal means to breaking the cycle. [Many of us who stand for justice actually question hate crime laws and this should not be read as an endorsement of them, just a question for further discussion. How do we build a legal means to combating a biased defense strategy? ]

      Whether or not ‘gay panic’ will get through a Bloomington jury probably has less to do with the city’s attitude and smarts—we don’t believe our community condones this violence—and more to do with the facts presented during trial. [we also don’t know for sure what the legal defense will look like at this point].

      It will be important to select a jury with members who not only say they hold no anti-gay bias, but who know that means holding gay people to the same standards that their straight counterparts regularly express and live to tell about.

  2. Jennifer Terry
    January 4, 2010

    I would recommend the documentary film Licensed to Kill by director Arthur Dong. Dong interviewed several men who were incarcerated for killing gay men and some relied on the “gay panic” defense, unsuccessfully. It is a compelling piece of work and allows viewers to hear the perspectives of the murderers but does not seek to exonerate them. Dong’s goal was to expose the homophobic (and often also racist) motivations that drive these men to kill.

    One more note: I see from the Affidavit that Griffin is an Iraq war vet and served in the Marine Corps. One wonders how the intense homophobia coupled with the intense homoeroticism of the US Marine Corps culture influenced his drive to befriend Belton and then brutally stab him in the back.

  3. Jennifer Terry
    January 5, 2010

    Bravo to the site administrator for the intelligent commentary and response to the journalist. I would add a friendly amendment: there would be a hell of a lot of dead straight *men* (and a lot of Catholic male clergy) in this world if murder was the expected response for everyone who made an unwanted sexual advance.

    Also I wonder if using the word “panic” is part of the problem especially in cases involving carefully plotted, premeditated murders such as that suffered by Don Belton. The word itself seems to provide a justification for the violence Griffin has admitted to inflicting upon Mr. Belton. We might want to use other words than panic to describe this kind of murder and the motivations behind it. Griffin seems to have plotted the stabbing over the course of a few days. He claims it was some sort of self-defense rather than revenge (or psychotic illusion). Experts on the subject probably have ideas about how and why “panic” should be rejected as an inappropriate term.

    Thanks for putting this site together, by the way. I teach at UC Irvine. My former colleague, Lindon Barrett (English/African American Studies), was strangled to death in his home in July of 2008 possibly by a younger man who was apprehended a few days later while driving Lindon’s car. The accused, Marlon Martinez, was to stand trial this month but was found dead in his cell in the LA County Jail on Dec. 29, 2009. There hasn’t been much press coverage about how his defense would have proceeded but Martinez, in his 20s, was described as a construction worker who was an acquaintance of Lindon’s. In any case, Don and Lindon: two very bright and well-loved African American gay men dead way before their time. (Lindon was 46.)

    • admin
      January 5, 2010

      Also I wonder if using the word “panic” is part of the problem especially in cases involving carefully plotted, premeditated murders such as that suffered by Don Belton.

      I think this is a very good point. The police report’s “crime of passion” reference has also come into question. I suppose we can only leave it up to the prosecution to make sure jurors know the difference between rhetoric and the law, given that these phrases exist and are out there. Or we could invent something new.

      I’m sorry to hear of your colleague. I actually have read about that case and would be interested in learning more about Lindon’s life.

  4. IU Grad Student
    January 5, 2010

    I just also want to say — so far I have seen no evidence that any kind of sexual contact ever took place between the killer and his victim. I mean proper evidence, something other than a story told by a guy facing a murder charge, and a vague de-contextualized notation in a journal which could as easily refer to simple platonic friendship.

    What I mean is that we have no idea why Griffin did what he did. We certainly know he has said terrible things about someone who, being dead, can’t defend himself. But it occurs to me that the things many of us say about Griffin accept unquestioningly that there *was* sex.

    What if there wasn’t? What if Don Belton was just a friend to Michael Griffin? I hope Mr. Wilson and other reporters will consider, in addition to reporting on the idea of “gay panic”, that so far there isn’t even any real evidence to suggest sexual contact between killer and victim. The only real reason to think that there was is a story being told by a person who would stab an unarmed man to death in his own kitchen. If we are going to speculate, shouldn’t we also think about how easy a target Belton, an out African American man, might have seemed to Griffin?

    I don’t say this to somehow exonerate Don Belton, because he doesn’t need to be exonerated, as far as I know. I say this to call into question the easy way so many of us seem to accept the premise of Griffin’s story, which is that some kind of sex did take place, that it triggered, in some way, whatever happened next. In the interest of learning the truth about what happened, I think it would be wise to start with only what we know: Michael Griffin admitted to killing Don Belton. He had the apparent murder weapon in his possession. That is all we have (publicly; one hopes the police have more).

    I think it would be a mistake to let Griffin’s version of the story set forth the (only) terms within which we discuss what happened. He has already silenced the only other eye witness. I think it is our turn now to frame questions.

    • admin
      January 5, 2010

      IU Grad thanks for your perspective. I definitely think ‘gay panic’ should definitely be separated from ‘what happened;’ often both can exist and be at odds simultaneously. There are some advocates and even prosecutors who would say just by claiming sexual assault as a “reason” to kill, it’s a gay panic case, no matter what actually happened. Others might say we need to hear the extent of their relationship, Griffin’s own identity, etc before the label would apply. Either way the phrase probably won’t enter the courtroom at all.

  5. Sunny
    January 6, 2010

    I would recommend that interested parties read the details of the Joseph Biedermann murder trial in the Daily Herald newspaper. http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=305831
    Biedermann was acquitted of stabbing his neighbor, Terrance Hauser, 61 times by claiming Hauser attempted to sexually assault him after a night of drinking. The two men had apparently just met in a bar near their apartment complex & the killer sent his girlfriend home alone so that he could go to Hauser’s apartment to continue drinking after the bartender refused to serve him any more liquor. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Hauser was not gay; and had apparently invited the killer to come to his place for pizza (found in the oven), video games and drinks.

    This is an incredible story that did not occur in some supposedly socially- conservative town, but in Hoffman Estates, just outside of Chicago. Also, read a veteran cop’s take on the case: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/arresting-tales/2009/07/gay-panic-defense-wins-in-cook-county.html

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