A Virginia man has been acquitted of murder after using what amounted to a gay/trans “panic” defense, outlawed in the state just a month after the victim’s death.
A jury Friday found former Virginia Tech football player Isimemen Etute, 19, not guilty of second-degree murder in the beating death of Jerry Paul Smith, The Roanoke Times reports. The trial took place over three days in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, Va.
Smith, 40, had had a sexual encounter with Etute in Smith’s apartment in Blacksburg, Va. They met on Tinder, and Etute believed Smith was a woman named Angie. Smith performed oral sex on Etute when they hooked up April 10, 2021, with Etute still believing Smith was a woman. It is unknown if Smith identified as transgender; his family has said he was a gay man.
Etute returned to Smith’s home May 31, 2021, with the intention of determining Smith’s gender. He realized Smith was a man and became enraged. He began beating Smith.
A detective and the state medical examiner “testified that most of the bones in Smith’s face were broken, he had bleeding and swelling inside his brain and he had multiple teeth knocked out,” according to the Times. The prosecution showed jurors several pictures of Smith’s lifeless, bloodied body.
“The facts for the most part in this case are not contested,” prosecutor Patrick Jensen said in his closing statement, the paper reports.
But defense attorney Jimmy Turk blamed Smith, calling him a “deceitful and dishonest man” who “defrauded young men for his own sexual gratification.” Turk said, “Who is the real victim here? This was a wicked sexual ruse.”
Police found a knife hidden under Smith’s mattress, leading Turk to say, “Who would be more likely to resort to violence? Who was more likely to be the aggressor? The man who hid the knife or this goofy, gullible kid?” Etute testified that he had seen Smith reach for a weapon, which Etute thought was a gun — something Etute did not mention to police when he was arrested last year.
Jensen commented on this by saying the defendant “has a motive for changing what he said. Etute has a tremendous amount riding on this trial.”
Jensen also advised jurors, “If you find this was in the heat of passion, you shouldn’t find him guilty of second-degree murder, the crime would be voluntary manslaughter, but what I’m telling you is this was not self-defense.”
Virginia passed a law last year banning the use of “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses in homicide or assault cases. Such defenses claim that the victim’s gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a provocation to violence. About a dozen states have adopted such laws. But Virginia’s law didn’t go into effect until July 1 of last year, so Judge Mike Fleenor did not advise the jury about it — granting a request from the defense team.
Despite having made this request and made multiple references to Smith’s “dishonest” ways, Turk denied that his defense of Etute amounted to gay or trans “panic.” “I don’t believe that [the new law] would have been applicable to the facts of this case anyway,” he told Virginia Public Media. “That’s not what led to the death.”