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Weighing Marsy’s Law pros and cons

With today’s general election, a number of constituents have asked me about the proposed Marsy’s Law Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment question which will be on the ballot.

In response to these questions, I put together a summary of the how the proposal came to be on the ballot, the proposed amendment itself, the pros and cons and some of the groups who support or oppose the amendment.

I think the one victim’s right that most confuses people is stated as “the right to refuse an interview, deposition or discovery at the request of the accused.” This does not mean that the prosecution/state does not have the obligation to turn over to the accused/defendant any interview, information or evidence provided by the victim to the state. It simply makes clear that the accused is not entitled to any additional interviews or requests for information directly from the victim. This is already longstanding, existing law.

It is my hope that this summary will help you understand the proposed amendment to our State Constitution so you can make an informed vote.

Marsy’s Law Amendment

On the ballot, there will be a ballot referendum question asking if Marsy’s Law Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment should be added to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

In order for a referendum to appear on the ballot changing the Pennsylvania Constitution, the General Assembly must pass a Joint Resolution in two successive sessions requesting that the proposed amendment be considered by the voters.

In this case, Marsy’s Law was passed in the 2017-18 session as SB 1011 unanimously in both the House and Senate (197-0) and (48-0) and in the current session as HB 276, which passed the House (190-8) and the Senate unanimously (50-0).

On your ballot you will read the following: “Shall the Pennsylvania constitution be amended to grant certain rights to crime victims including to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity; considering their safety in bail proceedings; timely notice and opportunity to take part in public proceedings; reasonable protection from the accused; right to refuse discovery requests made by the accused; restitution and return of property; proceedings free from delay; and to be informed of these rights, so they can enforce them.”

A YES vote means approval of the constitutional amendment.

A NO vote means disapproval of the constitutional amendment.

Explanation of Issue

Marsy’s Law will amend the Pennsylvania State Constitution to guarantee rights to victims of crime, and in some cases, victims’ families or relatives directly harmed by an accused/defendant.

Marsy’s Law is named after Marsy Nicholas, a woman stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. One week after her death, her mother and brother, Henry, walked into a grocery store where they saw the accused murderer. The family had no idea that he had been released on bail. Her brother, Dr. Henry T. Nicholas, is the key backer and proponent of Marsy’s Law.

Marsy’s Law is premised on the notion that victims should have equal rights to defendants in the criminal justice process. The U.S. Constitution and all 50 state constitutions guarantee defendants’ rights because they are rights against the state that apply when the state is attempting to prosecute a defendant/accused of a crime and when in the criminal justice system. They serve as essential checks against government abuse of power and protect an accused’s Constitutional rights.

Federal and State Constitutions, as originally drafted and enacted, had no protections for victims — only those for the accused/defendant.

Recognizing this, Pennsylvania and most other states enacted statutory laws protecting crime victims, in Pennsylvania specifically the Crime Victims Act of 1998.

Marsy’s Law would add to these protections and place them into the State Constitution to ensure that crime victims and their families have guaranteed rights and a meaningful role throughout criminal and juvenile justice systems.

These protections would include the right:

• to be treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity, and privacy;

• to be notified about and present at proceedings;

• to be heard at proceedings involving release, plea, sentencing, disposition, or parole of the accused;

• to proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt conclusion of the case;

• to reasonable protection from the accused or those acting on behalf of the accused;

• to be notified about release or escape of the accused;

• to refuse an interview, deposition or discovery at the request of the accused; and

• the full and timely restitution from the individual or entity convicted of the criminal offense.

Pros

1. This proposed amendment will ensure the legal rights and privileges of victims and their families.

2. It will ensure victims and their families are informed when the accused offender is released from custody.

3. It will require crime victims be informed of their rights.

4. It will protect victims and their families from the accused, or from those assisting the accused.

Cons

1. The amendment would override state law, eliminating judges’ abilities to weigh the rights of victims and defendants.

2. The amendment would alter nine provisions of the constitution without submitting each constitutional change separately as a ballot question as required by the PA Supreme Court.

3. Victims are already protected by the PA Crime Victims Act of 1998.

4. Victims could refuse to be interviewed or to turn over pertinent evidence or testimony.

5. Passage would create additional costs and needs on law enforcement, courts and government officials.

Proponents include Gov. Wolf, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Pennsylvania General Assembly, Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania Campaign

Opponents include ACLU of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

Garth Everett, R-Muncy, is state representative in the 84th House District.

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