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Opening Statement of Councilmember David Grosso

Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Hearing on

Hate Crimes in the District of Columbia and the Failure to Prosecute by the
Office of the United States Attorney and
B23-435, “Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of
October 23, 2019

Thank you, Chairman Allen, for convening this hearing. The conversation is critical as we find
ourselves in a time when hateful rhetoric is increasing and bias-related violence is escalating

I am thankful for this hearing to further explore the rise of hate crimes specifically in our city
and potential solutions to the violence affecting our neighbors and friends.

In part to address this, I introduced, along with you and nine of our colleagues, the “Tony
Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2019.”

This legislation would curtail the use of defenses that seek to excuse crimes such as murder
and assault on the grounds that the victim’s identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent

I originally introduced the bill in 2017 and reintroduced it with renewed support from
community members this year.

At their request, I named the bill after Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista, two victims whose
cases were marred by the discriminatory statements that are used in the making this so-called
panic defense.

In 2008, Tony Hunter died after being attacked in Shaw while on his way to a gay bar.

The man arrested for the assault told police that he punched Hunter in self-defense after
Hunter touched him in a sexually suggestive way.

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There were many other factors in the case that made it complex, but the fact that the assailant
blamed the victim’s sexual orientation for the attacker’s violent actions was disturbing and

This argument is known as the “gay panic” defense and it seeks to blame a victim of a violent
attack for provoking the violence by making a sexual comment, action, or simply by expressing
their identity.

It is used around the country and throughout D.C.’s history.

The same argument has been used by individuals accused of attacking or murdering
transgender women, arguing that the victim’s transgender identity amounted to deception
and therefor justified a violent response.

That is essentially the argument that the killer of Bella Evangelista made after he killed her in
2003, also in D.C.

Ms. Evangelista was murdered in Petworth after she had a sexual interaction with the man who
killed her.

Her killer stated that he returned and shot her to death after he was taunted by other men,
arguing that he was enraged about his victim’s gender.

This legislation would end the use of such arguments in the District of Columbia.

The American Bar Association has carefully considered this topic and has voted in support of
this type of legislation—in fact, the Tony Hunter and Bella Evangelista Panic Defense
Prohibition Act of 2019 is based on the model language put forward by the ABA.

I am a passionate supporter of the human rights of criminal defendants, a fair and swift trial,
and alternatives to incarceration.

All of that is possible without resorting to a defense that is premised on bias against lesbian,
gay, bisexual or transgender individuals

A defense that exploits bias simply should not be acceptable.

This bill is not limited to LGBT victims, but also covers any situation where an individual might
seek to excuse their violent actions on the basis of another person’s identity.

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The bill also requires that a jury be instructed to not let bias play a role in their deliberations
during a criminal trial if requested by the prosecutor or the defendant.

In this time of heightened rhetoric of hate and violence, it is incredibly important that we act to
eliminate bias whenever we can.

Thank you to all the witnesses here today. I look forward to the conversation.


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