CONTENT WARNING: Murder, gun violence, mentions of homophobia, mentions of alleged sexual assault.
Unsurprisingly for a psychology student, I have always been interested in true crime. What drives the mind of a killer – and how their victims are brought to justice – is something that many people other than myself are intrigued by, although eventually we are able to distance ourselves from the crimes through our privileged position as unassociated observers. With the rise of true crime Youtubers, crime investigation shows and Netflix serial killer documentaries, it can be easy to become desensitized to it all, and for less sensational cases to even go unknown by the public in favor of the ‘wilder’ crimes. Unfortunately, lesser known cases are often some of those that are most deserving of outrage. The murder of Daniel Spencer is one such case that has always stuck with me, due to the shocking reason that justice was neglected in court, allowing the killer’s sentence to be negated from murder to manslaughter. The reason was that Daniel Spencer was gay.
Had this case occurred in the early 1900s, we may understand – resentfully – how the murder of a gay man could be excused in court. ‘Queer hunting’ was essentially considered a sport during the vast period in which it was illegal to exist as an LGBT+ individual, in which gay and transgender people would be picked out, stalked, mowed down in cars, beaten and sometimes outright murdered, only to have their reputations besmirched after death to protect their killers. The murder of Daniel Spencer occurred in 2015, though, and the legislation that protected his killer still exists today.
Daniel Spencer was a talented 32-year-old guitarist, who had invited another musician, 62-year-old James Miller, to his apartment to play together. What should have been an innocent evening ended in tragedy. Later that night, Miller brutally stabbed Daniel four times, killing him. He then cleaned the apartment, changed clothes and went home, before eventually contacting the police to confess to killing the man.
He claimed broadly that Daniel had made advances on him, which his defence attorney took and transformed into an allegation upon the deceased of attempted sexual assault, despite there being no evidence of such but speculation based upon Daniel’s sexual orientation. This was seen as the only possible reason that Miller could have killed Daniel, as the 62-year-old simply had no criminal history. In essence; Daniel may have made flirtatious advances, and Miller was threatened enough by this insinuation of homosexuality that he stabbed him, not once but four times. What, though, if Daniel had been a woman in the same position? Would an unwanted heterosexual advance have been considered just as threatening, or merely flirtatious?
This kind of defense is a legal tactic often employed against minority victims, to excuse the actions of the perpetrator against them as a direct result of the victim’s minority status; in this case, sexuality. ‘Gay panic’ is defined as an extreme reaction to the victim’s sexual orientation, rendering the defendant incapable of controlling their actions and therefore essentially not at fault in the crime, similar to that of an insanity plea. It relies on an evolutionary theory discredited by psychologists and doctors alike, that many men will experience a biological response of rage when witnessing gay behavior.
In Daniel Spencer’s case, the controversial defense unfortunately succeeded. Miller was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, which is the lowest grade of felony in the state of Texas, punishable by only a six-month jail term and 10 years of probation. He was also ordered to pay Daniel’s grieving family a frankly insulting fine of only 11,000 dollars, for their son’s life. He was grievously let off the hook.
This case was unfortunately not an isolated incident. Perhaps the most notorious use of the gay panic defense is that of the murder of 32 year-old Scott Amedure, who appeared on the ‘Jenny Jones’ show in 1995 in an episode titled “Same-Sex Secret Crushes”, with his friend 24-year-old Jonathan Schmitz. Today, the episode is extremely eerie to watch, knowing that it aired only three days before Scott’s death, and contributed directly to it. Schmitz had been under the impression that he’d be meeting with an ex-girlfriend on set, who would be confessing feelings for him live on the show. Instead, Scott revealed his crush on the other man while on the air and Schmitz uncomfortably laughed it off, before repeatedly clarifying his heterosexuality.
After the show, his reaction was not so carefully contained. Schmitz found a flirtatious note on his doorstep addressed from Scott and flew into a prompt rage, feeling that he had been humiliated publicly. He went out, bought a gun, and headed to confront Scott, who he then shot twice in the chest in broad daylight, killing him on his own doorstep.
In court, Schmitz had his heinous act chalked up to the fact that he was manic-depressive, had been diagnosed with Graves’ disease and had stayed up all night drinking and smoking weed the night before the murder. His lawyers argued that because of his emotional issues, he became emotionally unstable as a result of the other man’s overt homosexual advances and was not in control of his actions. He too went into a ‘gay panic’, so clearly his murderous act was justifiable.
His sentence for shooting an unarmed man twice on his doorstep was reduced to second degree murder as a result, carrying a minimum sentence of 25 years. To put that into perspective, if he served only that, he would be out before he was 50; and today he walks free, after being released in 2017.
Unfortunately, these defenses are more commonplace than we in the LGBT+ community can rest comfortably with. Attorneys utilizing the gay panic defense can reduce a defendants’ murder charges 32% of the time, reducing prison sentences by an average of 18 years. Although they have now been banned in several US states, they are still permitted in the majority of US states as of May 2020, as well as in the entirety of the UK.
Many assume that allowing queer people the right to marry was simply the end of the equality conversation, however homophobia is still very much rife, and deeply entrenched in the legal system. Not only are you statistically more likely to be murdered if you identify as gay, but your murder is also less likely to be given justice in court, and the very fact that you exist as a gay person can be used against you to turn your killer into your victim, when you are no longer around to defend yourself. It’s a terrifying reality, and one that is worth raising awareness of.
Daniel Spencer and Scott Amedure did not deserve to have their young lives cut short, but the least their families deserved as reparation was to see their killers locked away for a suitable period. Cases such as theirs promote a sense of fear in young gay people that is hard to put into words; that your life is disposable, and that your identity is an easy excuse to take it away at any moment.
Let’s not allow this defense to bleed into our idea of normality. Every single person deserves to be able to rest easy knowing that they are safe, but if something does happen to them, justice will be done. So let’s all continue to talk about the existence of the gay-panic defense, until it is formally banned in courts. Let’s not be complacent in allowing something so obviously dripping in archaic homophobia to remain in our society.