Gay advocates are outraged after an Austin man received a seemingly light sentence for stabbing his neighbor to death in what some are calling an example of the so-called "gay panic" defense.
For decades, the rare defense has allowed a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity to justify violent crime in some cases. Now, advocates are saying it should be banned.
Local transgender advocate Kathryn Gonzales, who works for Out Youth in Austin, said she found the sentencing "unbelievable."
"I felt sad, and I felt betrayed," Gonzales told NBC News.
"I have to talk to 12- to 23-year-old LGBT kids about what happened, and I have to sit with them in their fear and their terror and their feeling that they had been let down," she added. "They feel that they are not as safe here as we would like to believe."
Most outrageous mugshots and crimes
Most outrageous mugshots and crimes
Kevin Gibson, arrested for possession of marijuana.
(Photo via Miami-Dade County Corrections)
Matthew Ezekiel Stager is a a convicted sex offender.
(Photo: U.S. Marshals)
Mahin Khan, 18, is shown in this Maricopa County, Arizona, U.S. Sheriff's Office booking photo from July 1, 2016. Courtesy Maricopa County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/ File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Mixed martial arts fighter Jason "Mayhem" Miller is seen in an undated booking photo released by the Orange County Sheriff's Department in California. Miller was arrested in Southern California on Friday for assault with a deadly weapon on an officer after he threw a ceramic tile at police outside his house, authorities said. REUTERS/Orange County Sheriff's Department/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
Robert Young, 43, is seen in this booking photo released to Reuters September 16, 2011. Young is one of two men accused of driving around Denver with their friend?s corpse and using the dead man?s debit card to pay for a night on the town including a visit to a strip club, prosecutors said on Friday. REUTERS/Denver District Attorney's Office/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Charles Justus, wanted for armed robbery, from Pleasant Hill, California.
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(REUTERS/Stockton Police/Handout via Reuters)
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(REUTERS/Arizona Department of Corrections/Handout)
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(REUTERS/Courtesy of Marion County Sheriffs Office/Handout)
Roger Hooton, charged with burglary of habitation in Dallas.
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(REUTERS/Oregon State Police/Handout)
In this handout from the Utah County Jail, Megan Huntsman is seen in a booking photo April 13, 2014. Huntsman was arrested and booked after the discovery of seven dead babies in cardboard boxes in a garage of a home in Pleasant Grove, Utah. She is charged with six counts of murder, it is reportedly unclear why therer are only six counts, for allegedly killing her own infants between 1996 and 2006.
(Photo by Utah County Jail via Getty Images)
Jesus Rodela of Dallas, wanted for a probation violation.
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(Photo by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department via Getty Images)
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Linda Thompson, also known as Brian Thompson, is pictured in this undated handout booking photo obtained by Reuters October 12, 2016. Laramie County Sheriff's Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
David Lopes Jackson is pictured in this undated booking photo provided by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Jackson, 35, was charged with two counts of second-degree arson in connection with fires set at the doors of two predominantly African-American churches in St. Louis, police said. REUTERS/St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department/Handout Via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
James Boulware is shown in this 2013 booking photo courtesy of Lamar County Sheriff's Office, released on June 13, 2015.
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ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Kenneth Stancil is shown in this Volusia County Corrections Department booking photo taken on April 14, 2015. Stancil, the 20-year-old former student, sought in the fatal shooting of an employee at a North Carolina community college was arrested on Tuesday after being found sleeping on a beach in Florida, police said.
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Christian Jose Gomez is pictured in this undated handout booking photo provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff?s Office. Gomez, a Florida man, confessed to decapitating his mother with an ax on New Year's Eve after becoming upset by her request to put some boxes into the attic of their home, authorities said, January 2, 2015. REUTERS/Pinellas County Sheriff?s Office/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Beauty queen Kendra Gill is shown in this Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office booking photo released on August 5, 2013. Gill, Utah hometown beauty pageant winner was among four people arrested on suspicion of throwing homemade bombs at houses in a Salt Lake City suburb over the weekend, authorities said on Monday. REUTERS/Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW HEADSHOT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Actor Jason London is shown in this booking photo provided by Scottsdale Police Department in Scottsdale, Arizona January 29, 2013. London was arrested Sunday on suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct outside a Scottsdale,Arizona bar January 27, 2013 according to news reports. REUTERS/Scottsdale Police/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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A jury recommended defendant James Miller, 69, receive 10 years probation for killing his neighbor, 32-year-old Daniel Spencer. The judge added the maximum six months jail time, required Miller to complete 100 hours of community service, and made Miller pay almost $11,000 in restitution to Spencer's family.
In 2015, Spencer invited Miller to his house for a night of music and drinking. According to Miller's attorney, Charlie Baird, the men had only met twice before and bonded over their love for music. Miller claimed he rejected a kiss from Spencer, his attorney said, which allegedly provoked the younger and larger man to fly into a rage. Miller then alleged that Spencer lunged toward him and threatened him with a glass, prompting Miller to defend himself by stabbing Spencer with a knife, according to Baird.
No witnesses were present when the crime was committed, attorneys said.
The jury convicted Miller of criminally negligent homicide, a charge that carries a lighter punishment than murder or manslaughter. The sentencing triggered national fury as reports began to circulate that Miller used "gay panic" in his defense. But Baird insists his client never made that claim. He said Miller claimed to have acted purely in self defense, though he acknowledged there was no physical evidence to prove the victim attacked his client.
Prosecutor Matthew Foye said the jury's decision showed that it rejected Miller's self-defense claim and made it clear that Daniel Spencer was the victim.
"They spent a lot of time deliberating, which I think shows they took the case very seriously," he said. "But I feel that by convicting him of criminally negligent homicide, the jury rejected the self defense claim and any aspect of it."
Foye denied reports that Spencer identified as gay. He said family and friends testified in court that he was heterosexual.
"Gay panic defense": A long and complicated history
The rare "gay panic defense" has appeared in court opinions in about half of all U.S. states since the 1960s, according to a 2016 study by UCLA Law's Williams Institute. The defense is usually used in conjunction with insanity or self-defense claims. No state recognizes it as a free-standing defense in their criminal code.
In perhaps the most notorious case, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson claimed "gay panic" when they stood accused of beating 21-year-old Matthew Shepard to death in 1998. They alleged the college student made unwanted sexual advances toward them. The men were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison.
In other cases, defendants have used "gay panic" with some success. In 2009, Joseph Biedermann was acquitted in the murder of his neighbor Terrance Hauser. Biedermann admitted to stabbing Hauser more than 60 times after Hauser allegedly threatened to rape him.
Related: Unsolved murders throughout history
Notable cold cases and unsolved murders throughout history
Notable cold cases and unsolved murders throughout history
In June 1893 Lizzie Borden stood trial, later acquitted, for killing her father and stepmother with an ax.
(Photo via Bettmann/Getty Images)
Foreboding Kingsbury Run, shunned by the timid as the legend of its murders has grown, is indicated on this map by dots locating 10 of the 11 torso murders which have occurred there since Sept. 23, 1935. Police, delving into the lives of the mad murderer's victims, hope to uncover clues which will end the periodic killings. Discovery of photo negatives in the belongings of Edward Andra Ssy, first victim, show Andra Ssy in a strange room which, if identified, may provide a live lead, police believe. As the map shows, the murderer departed only twice from his custom of assailing victims in Kingsbury Run or adjacent Cuyahoga river valley.
(Bettmann via Getty Images)
Bucks Row, now Durward Street, east London, where the body of Mary Ann Nichols, victim of Jack the Ripper, was found lying across the gutter.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Head shot of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, a murder victim nicknamed the Black Dahlia.
(Photo via Bettmann/Getty Images)
Daily News front page dated June, 16, 1990, Headline: IS HE THE ZODIAC?, Police sketch of man who approached latest victim in Central Park last Thursday and asked him his birth date., June 26, 1990 . , Zodiac Killer. , Heriberto Seda. Headlines. IS HE THE ZODIAC ?
(Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
U.S. labor leader Jimmy Hoffa is photographed at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport, Pennsylvania in this April 12, 1971 file photograph. Hoffa was switching planes from San Francisco, and was returning to the federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. Hoffa was let out of prison to visit his wife, who had been hospitalized with heart problems. FBI teams on May 25, 2006 sifted by hand through dirt from a chest-deep hole in the ground in an intense search for the body of Jimmy Hoffa three decades after his disappearance. Hoffa was last seen outside a Detroit-area restaurant where he was to meet New Jersey Teamsters' boss Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a member of the Genovese crime family, and a local Mafia captain, Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone. Hoffa was declared dead in 1982, and numerous books about his life have pinned his disappearance on mobsters who murdered him because they did not want him interfering with their close ties to the union.
The site where 6 year old JonBenet Ramsey was killed in Boulder, Colorado, 1996.
(Photo by Karl Gehring/Liaison)
Black car in which rapper Tupac Shakur was fatally shot by unknown driveby assassins as he was riding w. friend Death Row records. pres. Marion Suge Knight, who survived shooting, behind police tape at crime scene (Photo by Malcolm Payne/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Police detectives released this composite drawing March 27 of the man they believe killed rap star Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles recently. The suspect, a black man in his early 20's with close-cropped hair, was wearing a bow-tie the night of the drive-by killing. Investigators have set up a toll free number for the public to call with any information about the suspect.
Donna Norris poses next to a photo of her daughter Amber Hagerman, January 4, 2011, who was kidnapped 15 years ago while riding a bicycle near Norris mother's home in Arlington, Texas on January 13, 1996. (Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
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In 2016, James Dixon claimed "gay panic" in the murder trial of Islan Nettles, who he beat to death in New York City. Dixon had flirted with Nettles but said he became enraged after discovering she was transgender. In a plea deal, Dixon was sentenced to what many advocates saw as a lenient 12-year prison sentence.
Gonzales said the "gay panic defense" is frequently used to defend attacks on transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, who tend to experience disproportionately high rates of violence. In these cases, advocates typically refer to the defense as "trans panic."
"Straight cisgender (non-transgender) men go out on a date with a trans woman and claim they didn't know [she was trans] and murder us," Gonzales said. "And again, this sends a message that we deserve to die because somebody else's discomfort with who we are as human beings is more important than our humanity."
Gonzales said "trans panic" often forces trans women to lead sheltered lives.
"Ultimately, rightly or wrongly, I avoid straight cisgender men as much as possible, because I don't know how they're going to react to me," Gonzales said.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer advocates are working to ban "gay panic" and "trans panic" defenses across the country. In 2013, the LGBT Bar Association unanimously approved a resolution "calling for an end to these heinous arguments," according to the group's website. In January, Illinois joined California as one of two states to pass a ban on the "gay panic defense."
Advocates intend to revive legislative attempts to ban the "trans panic defense" in Washington and New Jersey, where proposals haven't yet received committee votes. They also hope to make progress in New York, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas, according to the Associated Press.
Austin case "different and worrisome"
Legal expert Anthony Michael Kreis, who helped write the Illinois law banning the "gay panic defense," called the Miller verdict "repugnant." He said Miller's punishment "doesn't seem to fit the crime."
Kreis said the "gay panic defense" can be hard to categorize, because it can appear in different ways, but he said it always aims to blame the victim. He described a typical scenario as: "Someone of the same sex approached me, came onto me, hit on me, I reacted in this uncontrollable rage, and I unfortunately killed the victim."
But Miller "didn't claim it was just the discovery of the sexual orientation per se" that led to him to stab Spencer, Kreis added.
"It was that this mix of the same-sex interaction and the rejection in combination," Kreis explained. "It was that the victim's stature and kind of aggressive tone created a scenario where he felt compelled to 'defend himself.'"
He said that makes the Miller case "different and worrisome," noting that it "will prove difficult for people drafting legislation going forward to address those kinds of situations."
Miller's attorney said a hypothetical ban on the "gay panic defense" in Texas would have had no impact on his client's case, because he never claimed it in the first place.
"Our defense in this case was self defense — that Daniel Spencer was coming at him, approaching him in an aggressive and violent manner, that he was half his age and eight inches taller than James Miller. There's nothing about 'gay panic,'" Baird insisted.
Whether a ban has any practical use in court is less important than its symbolic message, argued Kreis.
"Ultimately, in Illinois it's a reflection of the state's values, particularly in a time when the LGBT community is under attack and our rights are under siege by the federal government," he said.
Gonzales said she welcomes more state bans, but she said only a larger cultural shift in attitudes will protect LGBTQ people from violence.
"We want the same thing that everyone else does," Gonzales said. "We want to be loved, acknowledged and accepted for exactly who we are."