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Ohio crime victim's bill seeks 'equal footing' with defendants

By IVY KELLER • Feb 12, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Voters could see an issue on the ballot in November supporting the rights of crime victims. The proposed bill, known as Marsy’s Law, needs nearly 305,600 signatures in order to be placed on the state ballot. These signatures must come from registered Ohio voters, and must be collected by July 5 for the issue to appear by November. The bill cleared the Ohio Ballot Board just earlier this month.

If passed, the law would replace the current legislation, the 1994 Victim’s Rights Amendment. It has already been passed in several states including California, Illinois and Montana

Marsy’s Law is named for Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas, a University of California Santa Barbara student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. A week after she was killed, Marsy’s mother and brother were confronted by her daughter’s murderer in the grocery store. No one had told her he was released on bail.

Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas, is the law’s key backer. According to the website for it, “Courts must consider the safety of victims and families when setting bail and release conditions. Family members have legal standing in bail hearings, pleas, sentencing, and parole hearings.”

Considering this, the state would have to inform victims and their family members about changes in status of the criminal or alleged criminal. Victims would also be able to file an appeal under the law if their rights were violated by the court. 

Ohio’s current victim’s rights legislation is does share some similarities Marsy’s law. The state is required to inform victims of changes in the accused criminal’s status, such as release on bail, furlough or death. They are also supposed to inform the victim of all their rights under the law, among other things.

Under Marsy’s Law, victims would be allowed to request to be notified of any release, plea or sentencing proceedings. They would also be allowed to attend and speak at these proceedings if they desired.

Some concerns about the law include whether or not it would put victims above defendants, instead of on equal ground.

Proponents of the law say it would give victims more rights but would not impinge on the rights of the accused, make victims party to criminal cases or delay or disrupt the criminal justice process.

"There's nothing in this amendment that detracts from the rights of the accused," Catherine Harper Lee, founder and director of the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center said. "Courts will simply have to put the rights of the victims on equal footing."

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said he had no argument against victims having having clear or specific rights if they don't start to impinge or erode the fundamental rights of defendants.

The proposed amendment would do just that, Young said said, stripping language in the current amendment that ensures that victims' rights provisions do not "abridge any other right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States or the Ohio constitution."

"If it can abridge those rights, you would abridge fundamental rights that are in the U.S. Constitution," he said.

Young said other worrisome additions include language that could allow victims to refuse discovery, which could include vital information, such as a portion of a diary or the fact a victim was diagnosed with a mental illness and had altered perceptions or hears voices.

It appears ballot initiative seeks to fix frustrations victims with the government for not upholding their rights, which currently can only be addressed civilly, Young said. But that dissatisfaction shouldn't be put upon defendants, he said.

 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Rachel Dissell of The Cleveland Plain Dealer contributed to this story.)

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