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Push is on for victims' rights provision in state constitution via 'Marsy's Law'

State House Bureau

January 16. 2018 6:32PM
A crime victim identified as "Dawn" is surrounded by Gov. Chris Sununu, state lawmakers and others supporting a constitutional amendment to protect victims' rights. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — With the backing of Gov. Chris Sununu and bipartisan support in the House and Senate, proponents of “Marsy’s Law” on Tuesday launched a statewide campaign to enshrine victims’ rights in the New Hampshire constitution.

Victims will no longer be neglected, ignored or disrespected in the judicial process if Marsy’s Law becomes part of the state constitution, said Sununu, adding, “This glaring inequality demands immediate change.”

He stood with crime victims who urged support for the constitutional change. Leslie Smith of Wakefield, who was sexually assaulted in 2015, says she was re-traumatized for the next two years by a judicial system that left her in the dark at every turn.

She wasn’t notified of key hearings, let alone advised of her right to speak, nor was she notified of her assailant’s release back into her home community until eight days after the fact.

“I called the Attorney General’s office to see what could be done, because I was told I have all these rights,” she said. “I got a call back a few days later and was told my notification is considered more of a courtesy. It’s just a statute. You don’t have the same rights that a defendant does.”

Some defense attorneys have expressed concern over the impact such a constitutional amendment could have on the right of the accused to a speedy trial.

The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement warning that judges could be thrown into a constitutional quandary if confronted with competing rights of equal weight.

“The ACLU-NH supports the rights of crime victims, and ensuring they are treated with the compassion and respect which they deserve. At the same time, it is essential the proposed constitutional amendment preserve the accused’s constitutional rights to due process,” according to ACLU-NH Policy Director Jeanne Hruska.

“As currently written, the language in the (proposed amendment) would risk violating the due process rights in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Without improved language, this amendment would come into direct conflict with federal constitutional rights afforded to the accused, who are still innocent until proven guilty. ...”

The ACLU offered to work with lawmakers to add language to address the potential conflicts.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said his office has examined how the Marsy’s Law amendment is working in other states, and is confident of its constitutionality. “We believe it preserves the full rights of the accused and will not cause any unnecessary delay in trial proceedings,” he said.

The state already has a 22-point Victim Bill of Rights in statute, with guarantees that range from the right to be notified of all court activity to the right to testify at sentencing or parole hearings.

The proposed constitutional amendment contains many of the same guarantees, including the right to be provided notice of all legal proceedings; to be heard at those proceedings; to receive reasonable protection from the accused; to be given notice of any parole, release or escape of the convicted; and to receive restitution.

At least 22 of the state’s 24 senators are supporting the effort, along with the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic minority leader in the House.

The measure would have to pass each chamber by at least a 60 percent majority, and then be approved in November on a statewide ballot by two-thirds of the votes cast.

It hasn’t been done since 2007, when the constitution was successfully amended to prevent private property from being taken by eminent domain for economic development.

Marsy’s Law is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, a University of California student who was stalked and killed by her boyfriend in 1983. In the ensuing years, her brother Henry Nicholas, co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom Corp., began the push for Marsy’s Law as a constitutional amendment. Marsy’s Law For All, the national organization behind the effort, is expected to pour at least $1 million into a statewide campaign.

California was the first state to adopt the amendment in 2008. In the ensuing years, all except 15 states followed. The organization has since been targeting them one by one, with New Hampshire now in the crosshairs.

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Thank you, Sununu