The ‘Gay Panic’ Defense in Vassalboro

Seeing the recent headlines about the killing of Thomas Namer in Vassalboro, I’ve been reminded of another homicide on MDI that I wrote about 12 years ago. In both cases, the men accused in the killings said that their violent outbursts were precipitated by unwelcome sexual advances from the men they killed.

This is what is known as the ‘gay panic’ defense. The accused murderer basically says that he was so surprised and intimidated by the fact that another man made a sexual pass at him that he flew into an unhinged homicidal rage and killed the other person. Perhaps the most prominent instance of a ‘gay panic’ defense coming into play in a courtroom was in 1999 when two men were accused of tying gay college student Matthew Shepard to a fence in Wyoming and then beating him to death.

It is an argument that for years has been roundly criticized by gay rights and human rights activists (and others) who have said it can be used to justify the killing of gays or any type of person that the perpetrator just doesn’t like. And, critics have added, what if the same argument could be employed in ANY situation that involved unwanted sexual advances? Women could use the defense to justify the killing of scores of men every weekend in bars across the country.

Despite these counter-arguments, and increased public acceptance of homosexuality, the ‘gay panic’ defense has persisted. Just this past summer, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution calling on various legislative bodies to limit the “availability and effectiveness of the use of ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses by criminal defendants.”

There have been cases in which defense attorneys have argued successfully that their clients were in such a state of mind that they could see no other choice to protect themselves except to kill their abuser.

The case of Amber Cummings, a Belfast woman who shot her husband to death in 2008 after suffering years of emotional and physical violence, is one such example. In cases such as hers, killers that get exonerated often have been in long-term and isolated relationships with their abusers, to the point that they were psychologically restricted in determining what other options they might have – a condition often referred to as battered woman syndrome or, less commonly, battered person syndrome.

Cummings pleaded guilty to manslaughter but did not have to serve any time behind bars.

At the trial I helped to cover in 2002, in which Edwin Graham was charged with murder in the beating and stabbing death of Zachary Savoy, Graham testified that he had been subjected to sexual abuse as a child by his brother. Graham said Savoy, whom he had just met for the first time that night, made a pass at him and that being sexually abused again was something that he was “scared of in life.” A psychologist testified at Graham’s trial that this fear could have created a “detached” psychological state in Graham’s mind during the fatal attack.

The argument did not get Graham off the hook. He was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

In the Vassalboro case, police say Courtney Shea told them he killed Namer in reaction to Namer touching his genitals and making a sexual advance.

Shea told police he had known Namer for years and that Namer had sexually assaulted him when he was a child. Shea also told police that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from having been sexually molested by another person when he was a boy. According to an affidavit filed in Kennebec County Superior Court, Shea told police that Namer “routinely purchased alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc. and gave rides to young males and perhaps young females in exchange for sexual favors.”

Similar to Graham, Shea told police he “blacked out” before he fatally stabbing Namer.

There likely is more information about the history and relationship between Namer and Shea that has yet to be released, so it is too early to tell exactly what kind of psychological responses may have been triggered in the series of events that led up to Namer’s death.

Assuming the case goes to trial, it will be up to a jury to determine whether Shea’s case is more like Graham’s or like Cummings’ – and perhaps whether a ‘gay panic’ defense should have any role in trying to explain Namer’s death.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.