What is going on in Amendment 6’s “Marsy’s Law”?

By: - September 14, 2018 7:00 am

CD Davidson-Hiers photo

Who wouldn’t vote to give rights to crime victims?

Voters must decide just that in November when they see “Marsy’s Law” (part of Amendment 6) on the ballot. Victims’ rights advocates say the law is overdue and necessary. Civil rights organizations say Marsy’s Law is not what it seems.

Where Marsy’s Law comes from

Tech billionaire Henry Nicholas is the California man backing a national push for states to incorporate Marsy’s Law into their Constitutions. In 1983, Nicholas’s sister, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, was killed and a week later, the alleged killer confronted the Nicholas family in a grocery store. No one had told the family the accused man had been released on bail.

In 2009, Henry Nicholas formed the group Marsy’s Law for All which works to provide resources to victims’ rights organizations across the nation, according to the Marsy’s Law campaign in Florida.

In August of this year, Nicholas was arrested in Las Vegas on suspicion of drug trafficking, the Los Angeles Times reported. He has since been released from custody, the story said.

Different versions of the Marsy’s Law have passed in six states, the Florida campaign says: California, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Montana. It will go before voters on midterm ballots in six others: Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada and Oklahoma.

What Marsy’s Law does

Michael Liles, 62, is the executive director for the Justice Coalition in Jacksonville and an outspoken advocate for Marsy’s Law. He is a crime victim.

Last year, Liles came home to find his wife of over 40 years beaten to death.

The man accused of killing Debbie Liles faces the death penalty, but that’s not enough, Liles said. He said he just wants to find a way to confront the man who robbed him of 41 years of marriage. He feels like the court system treats him like a nuisance.

“Prosecutors view you as a distraction. I have been told my family was intrusive in the process because we wanted to know what was going on,” he said. “There are so many times the victims and the surviving members of the victims just feel like they have no direct input.”

Liles said he knows the accused has the right to face his accusers, but Liles says the law gives him no right to confront the person who he thinks murdered his wife. Liles said state prosecutors have told him that it’s not his case, but theirs.

Liles said he understands how the process works but believes Marsy’s Law will introduce some humanity to the proceedings.

He addressed Florida’s Constitution Review Commission in March:

“I have heard people say that Marsy’s Law is nothing but a solution in search of a problem,” Liles told the review board. “I’m the problem. I’m missing my bride. I have been grieving for over a year, and I need some support and Marsy’s Law would provide it.”

He added: “I hope that Marsy’s Law can introduce a breath of fresh air to victims in a courtroom.”

If Amendment 6 gets a majority (at least 60 percent) of the vote in November, Marsy’s Law will add five pages of victims’ rights to the state Constitution. Already, the Constitution gives crime victims the right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant at all crucial stages of the criminal proceedings.

Amendment 6 would delete a sentence which says that victims are entitled to all their rights if they don’t infringe on those of the accused.

This is huge, says Cecile Scoon, 59, vice president for Florida’s League of Women Voters.

Scoon said that state Constitutions are considered fundamental, foundational law so to introduce a revision like Marsy’s Law would tip the scales of justice to the side of victims.

This is the opposite of due process, Scoon said.

People who are accused of a crime are not always guilty and Marsy’s Law may have good intentions, but the way it is worded will complicate justice, Scoon said.

“It’s setting up a contest between victims and the accused,” she said.

One part of Marsy’s Law is that victims will have a right to be notified about legal proceeding and be given access to appear at them. Scoon said this raises questions: What will courts do if the victims are not available for the court date? Will the courts have to reschedule? Will Marsy’s Law force the courts to coordinate their proceedings with the victims’ schedules? What if a victim doesn’t have the ability to take time off from work to appear for a case?

“How do you give all the rights to the victim?” Scoon said.

She said that on its surface, Marsy’s Law seems like a good idea. Scoon has worked as a prosecutor and defense counsel in criminal courts and said that she understands that victims want to be kept informed. But, she said, Amendment 6 gets carried away.

“It got to be so layered and multi-faceted in terms of the notices and opportunities to speak at every hearing,” Scoon said. “The impact is that justice may be delayed because you’re trying to find the victims or trying to coordinate with the victims on so many levels and at so many different hearings.”

Marsy’s Law also would do something else that could make big changes in the court system: It would limit the time to resolve cases which are on appeal to two to five years.

It’s sometimes impossible to resolve an appeal in that time frame, appeals lawyer Harvey Sepler, 67, said, who appeared last week before the state Supreme Court to argue against Amendment 6.  It takes time for defendants to build their cases, he said, and an appeals court itself will sometimes be the one that delays a case. And the amendment is silent on what happens if a case doesn’t meet the two to five-year deadline – adding uncertainty to the legal system and to the state Constitution.

But a spokesperson for the Marsy’s Law campaign in Florida said that if Amendment 6 passes in November, crime victims would have clear and enforceable rights protected in Florida’s Constitution.

“They would have the right to be heard, the right to be notified of court proceedings, the right to be present at all court proceedings, the right to be free from harassment and the right to restitution,” the campaign said. “Most important, they would have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”


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CD Davidson-Hiers
CD Davidson-Hiers

CD Davidson-Hiers is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Florida State University with a degree in Creative Writing and French. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Golden Key honors societies, and has received multiple writing awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Prior to joining the Florida Phoenix, CD worked at the Tallahassee Democrat and has bylines in Tallahassee Magazine. She is a native of Pensacola and currently lives in Tallahassee with her tabby cat, Faulkner.