Wisconsin voters by large margins have approved a controversial and significant constitutional amendment that alters state law by providing stronger protections for alleged crime victims.
The measure, known as “Marsy’s Law,” is promoted by a California billionaire and supported by crime victims who say it makes their rights just as strong as those of the accused by enshrining them in the Wisconsin Constitution.
In May 2019, the measure was approved a second time by the Legislature and put on the April ballot. The measure received overwhelming support in the Assembly, with just 15 Democrats and Republicans opposed. In the Senate, just five of the 33 members voted against it: four Democrats and one Republican.
The national campaign for Marsy’s Law has spent about $102 million in at least a dozen states where ballot measures were approved between 2008 and 2018. In Wisconsin, the state group spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying in the 2017-18 legislative session and $384,500 more in the first six months of 2019.
Marsy’s Law was named after Marsalee (Marsy) Ann Nicholas, a University of California-Santa Barbara student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Just a week after the murder, Marsy’s mother, Marcella, was confronted by her daughter’s murderer at a local market. She hadn’t been told he had been released on bail just days after Marsy’s murder. Henry Nicholas III is Marsy’s brother, and the billionaire founder of the Marsy’s Law national campaign.
While popular among lawmakers of both parties, the measure has drawn criticism from defense attorneys and some criminal justice advocates who say Marsy’s Law would create havoc because of what they view as the amendment’s unclear language. They say it could undermine the rights of defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Opponents of the measure say it could increase the likelihood of exculpatory evidence being thrown out by a judge.
Supporters of Marsy’s Law say it simply makes the rights of alleged victims just as strong as those of the accused. Some rights for victims are already delineated in the Wisconsin Constitution, and others are outlined in statute, which carries less weight. Marsy’s Law would add 16 new rights for victims while eliminating reference to a fair trial for the defendant.
Still, U.S. constitutional protections for defendants as well as others included in the Wisconsin Constitution would still apply.
Among the new constitutional protections the law gives crime victims are the rights:
- To be treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, sensitivity and fairness.
- To privacy.
- To proceedings free from unreasonable delay.
- To attend, upon request, all proceedings involving the case.
- To reasonable protection from the accused through the criminal and juvenile justice process.
- To reasonable and timely notification of proceedings.
- To confer, upon request, with the attorney for the government.
- To be heard, upon request, in any proceeding during which a right of the victim is implicated, including release, plea, sentencing, disposition, parole, revocation, expungement, or pardon.
- To have information pertaining to the economic, physical, and psychological effect upon the victim of the offense submitted to the authority with jurisdiction over the case and to have that information considered by that authority.
- To receive, upon request, timely notice of any release or escape of the accused or death of the accused if the accused is in custody or on supervision at the time of death.
- To refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused.
- To receive, upon request, reasonable and timely information about the status of the investigation and the outcome of the case.
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