We have watched enough crime dramas to know that those accused of a crime must be given their “Miranda warnings.”
“You have the right to remain silent; whatever you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” etc.
Critics often complain that victims and their families are accorded no similar protections, but that, of course, is an oversimplification.
Nonetheless, when you and other voters go to the polls in Pennsylvania Nov. 5, you will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that spells out the rights of crime victims.
Pennsylvania already has a durable Crime Victims’ Act, which has been in place since 1998, and within this act is a Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights.
So you are probably wondering why, if we already have these protections, this constitutional amendment is needed. The problem revolves around specifics and enforcement.
The Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights provides them with a right to receive basic information about services available to them and the right to be notified of major proceedings in their case.
It also gives them, among other things, support at court proceedings, the right to be restored to pre-crime economic status through compensation and restitution, return of stolen items and a remedy if their rights are violated. Approval of the constitutional amendment would fortify these rights.
The legislation had strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly with the House passing the measure 190-8 and the Senate approving it 50-0.
This is called Marsy’s Law, named for Marsalee Nicholas, a California college student who was murdered in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. A few days after her death, her mother and brother walked into a grocery store, where they were confronted by Marsy’s accused murderer. Marsy’s family had not been notified of his release on bail. Marsy’s offender continued to harass the family throughout the judicial proceedings until he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced.
Marsy’s brother, Henry T. Nicholas III, has made it his mission to ensure that what happened to his family does not happen to others. Nicholas, a billionaire businessman who co-founded Broadcom, and a friend were charged with drug trafficking last year in Las Vegas.
Both are taking a plea deal, which means they will not have any jail time. Nicholas and co-defendant Ashley Christine Fargo will enter pleas to two felony drug possession charges and will make a $1 million donation to an unspecified Las Vegas drug treatment and rehabilitation program, according to a prosecutor in the case. The pleas mean there is evidence to convict them, but they are admitting no wrongdoing.
Despite his legal troubles, Nicholas’ efforts have been successful in having Marsy’s Law legislation pass in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, although the state supreme courts in Kentucky and Montana invalidated the passage of constitutional amendments in those states on technical issues.
The Kentucky high court ruled last year that the full legislative proposal needed to be submitted to the voters, not just a summary. Montana’s court said legislators did not follow proper procedure.
Pennsylvania advertises the entire “plain-English statement” of the proposal in general circulation newspapers throughout Pennsylvania and is available online, but voters will see just a 73-word, one-sentence summary of a yes-or-no question.
Pennsylvania’s victims advocate Jennifer Storm said her office will be able to ask the court for reconsideration of a victim’s rights if it comes to that: “We could ask for another court hearing so the victim can put their restitution request on the record.”
Most importantly, she added, it will allow victims to have their voices heard.
“It’s not going to probably change the sentence. It’s not going to change the outcome, but it’s honoring that sliver of a role that we give victims in our justice process,” Storm said.
Not everyone agrees, including the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The organization’s legislative director, Elizabeth Randol, said, “Marsy’s Law will fundamentally alter our criminal legal system and threaten long-established constitutional protections for the accused, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a speedy trial, the right to confront one’s accuser and the right to effective assistance of counsel.”
I disagree with the ACLU’s viewpoint and urge a “yes” vote on the question.
Here are some of the main points that the ballot measure would give victims: They would be treated with fairness and respect, allow for the timely prosecution and prompt conclusion of a case, consideration of a victim’s safety when setting bail and release conditions, giving reasonable and timely notice of proceedings, allowing victims to be heard at proceedings, informing victims of anything to do with the disposition of the case and allowing the presentation of information before paroling the offender.
The victim would also be guaranteed reasonable protection from the accused and anyone acting on his or her behalf, notification of the accused’s release or escape, allowing the victim to refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request by the accused, full and timely restitution, prompt return of property taken as evidence and allowing the victim to confer with a government attorney.
Editor’s note: Bruce Frassinelli is a former newspaper editor and current contributor to the opinion page of Times News, Lehighton, the sister daily newspaper of the Lehigh Valley Press weekly editions.