How will you vote on Marsy’s Law?

Published 7:12 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

There are a lot of questions being asked about Amendment 4 on the ballot, known as Marsy’s Law. 

A student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas died after being shot in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend, Kerry Conley.

After the funeral service, Marsy’s brother, along with some family, were driving home and stopped at a market, so his mother could just run in and get a loaf of bread.  While in the checkout line, the man who had been arrested for her murder was staring her down.

The family was not told that the defendant had been granted a bond because there was no obligation by the state to inform the family. Conley remained free on bond until he was convicted of second-degree murder in April 1985. Sentenced to 17 years to life, he died in prison in 2007.

In 2008, the Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment in California. passed. In general, the amendment granted constitutional rights to crime victims.  

This year’s ballot in Georgia has five amendments. Georgia’s version of Marsy’s Law is Amendment 4.

Amendment 4 addresses rights of victims of crime by allowing, upon request, crime victims to have specific rights, including the right to be treated with “fairness, dignity, and respect;” the right to notice of all proceedings involving the alleged criminal; the right to be heard at any proceedings involving that release, plea or sentencing of the accused; and the right to be informed of their rights. 

The amendment also states that the legislature can further define, expand and provide for the enforcement of the rights.

The amendment will appear on the ballot as follows:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide certain rights to victims against whom a crime has allegedly been perpetrated and allow victims to assert such rights?

I agree with Joe Mulholland, a District Attorney in south Georgia, who mentioned that the amendment is already part of the law. 

He said, “It’s already technically part of Georgia law, but the legislature felt like being a part of the constitution is even stronger. Having that and knowing its part of the constitution, I think it gives peace of mind to prosecutors.”

Peter John “Pete” Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council (PAC), told me last night that PAC and the The District Attorney’s Association are supporting the amendment. He said that Bert Poston, the District Attorney of the Conasauga Circuit, worked tirelessly with Marsy’s Law national group and the General Assembly to obtain an amendment that would have widespread bipartisan support.  

Others have voiced concerns that seem unfounded like additional costs for victims’ advocates, infringement on the constitutional rights of the accused, and an increase in false accusations.  

These concerns are difficult to seriously consider because the amendment does not change the mechanics of the law at all. Marsy’s Law would just elevate the protections in the Crime Victims Bill of Rights from a statute to part of the Georgia Constitution.  

As an aside, there is also this notion that because the Constitution provides us with rights that protect us from the government such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to counsel in a criminal case, etc., that victims should have equal rights.  

Well, this is like comparing apples and oranges.  

The Constitution generally protects citizens who are accused by the government at a jury trial. Rights that victims have include things like being notified by prosecutors when an accused has a court appearance, making statements at sentencing, etc.

These are two distinct groups of rights.

I see victims and alleged victims exercise their rights in court every week.  In west Georgia, they are treated with dignity by the court, DA’s office and defense attorneys as they should be.  

Interesting that I say “they.” A month ago, thieves stole my four-wheeler and 12 trail cameras. So, I am a criminal defense attorney and a victim today. I will have to speak with Mr. Herb Cranford, District Attorney of the Coweta Judicial Circuit, very soon.    

While Marsy’s Law might not be necessary in Georgia because its provisions already exist, I will still vote for the amendment. It will not change the operation of courts in Georgia. It will not affect the rights of a person if he or she is arrested.  

But, it will raise the awareness and protection level of existing victims’ rights.