Law banning ‘gay panic’ defenses tested as former tech soccer player faces murder charges

A 19-year-old former Virginia Tech football player has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 40-year-old Jerry Paul Smith.

Lawyers said Isimemen Etute matched Smith on Tinder, which led to a sexual encounter in April 2021. Etute told prosecutors that he beat her after learning Smith was not anatomically female. Etute, who was 18 at the time, was later arrested and suspended from the Tech football team.

According to a Roanoke Times report, Smith used the name Angie Renee when meeting Etute. But without an explanation from the deceased regarding his pronouns, preferred name or gender identity, VPM News will refer to the victim as Smith.

Etute pleaded not guilty to murder during his arraignment last week in Christiansburg. His attorney claimed Etute acted in self-defense, saying Smith had a knife nearby at the time of the altercation. The defense pointed out that Smith had a pattern of deceiving men into meeting for sex.

The defense filed a motion to allow some witnesses to remain anonymous because they had similar encounters with Smith. Judge Mike Fleenor denied the request Monday.

The defense also asked Fleenor to disregard a Virginia statute that prohibits the use of a person’s perceived gender or sexual orientation as a criminal defense at trial. The so-called “gay panic” defense is used when a perpetrator claims to have lost control after learning of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

The Virginia legislature passed the “gay panic” defense ban during last year’s general assembly. It came into force on July 1st. The defense also requested that the law not be applied in Etue’s case because the murder occurred after the bill was signed but before it came into force.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), who sponsored the ‘gay panic’ bill, said the argument for the defense would backfire.

“If you’re on the prosecution team,” Roem told VPM News, “and you’re on the prosecution team and you’re looking at this motion, you would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Now, aren’t you saying that it was actually the person’s gender identity or sexual orientation that made you commit second-degree murder?’”

Roem said the application is unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.

“Everyone is entitled to a strong, vigorous defense at their trials,” she said. “That is obviously the predicate of the American criminal justice system. At the same time, something like this has to be dismissed. It’s so wildly invalid.”

According to a study by W. Carsten Andresen, assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University, Virginia attorneys have used the “gay panic” defense at least eight times since 1986. Andresen found that judges and juries reduced the charges 32.7% of the time when the defense was called.

The selection of the jury begins on Wednesday morning in the two-day process.

Leave a Comment