A committee in the state Senate again gave its approval to “Marsy’s Law,” a bill legislator’s previously approved that would make the rights of crime victim’s part of the state’s constitution.
The committee on state and local government approved Senate Bill 15 on Wednesday, sending it to the full Senate for consideration. The bill is known as “Marcy’s Law” in honor of Maraslee (Marsy) Nicholas, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1993.
More than 30 states have passed their version of “Marsy’s Law.” In Kentucky, Senate Bill 15 would “ensure crime victims a meaningful role throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.” Some of the protections that would be added to the constitution include the right to be notified of hearings, to be notified when the defendant is released or escapes, to be present at trial and have the victim’s safety considered when a judge is setting bond. A public vote would be required to place the language in the constitution.
A similar bill was signed into law in 2018, but the state Supreme Court ruled the language on the ballot was too vague.
Senate Bill 15 is sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican. Westerfield told committee members Wednesday putting victim’s rights in the constitution “regrettably still is long overdue in Kentucky.”
Although the Supreme Court ruling didn’t allow the election results to be certified, “over 800,000 Kentuckians” voted to put Marsy’s Law in the constitution, Westerfield said.
A change to the law made in committee would require a crime victim be notified before a person was pardoned by the governor, Westerfield said.
“The overarching point of Marsy’s Law … is to make sure the victim has a meaningful voice” in the process, he said.
Melissa Buchanan, whose brother Marvin Charles Prater was beaten, robbed and left to die in Lewis County in 2000, testified the family had been given no notice of court hearings in the court cases against the men who killed Prater, and they weren’t notified when the defendants were released.
“They began calling my home and threatening my family,” Buchanan testified. The defendant would also frequently drive by the family’s home, she said. All four were later convicted and sentenced to prison, “and two are already out,” she said.
“I didn’t want to become an expert in this area, but help is desperately needed,” said Buchanan, who formed an organization, Hope After Homicide, for family members of homicide victims.
“We don’t know what we are allowed to say or do unless someone tells us” in a court case, Buchanan said.
Westerfield said Senate Bill 15 would “grant victims of crime constitutional rights, so they’d have the same level of protections” as defendants.
Emily Postel, of Marsy’s Law of Kentucky, said victims learn “they have no legal standing in court.”
“You can’t uphold someone’s constitutional rights if they don’t have them,” Postel said, adding, “doing something for victims is not the same as doing something to defendants.”
Angela Rea, president of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told committee members approving the bill would have negative consequences on the defendant’s right to a fair trial and urged senators to oppose the bill. Rea said the bill would interfere with the defendant’s right to gather evidence for trial.
“We already have a statute for a victim’s bill of rights,” Rea said. If there are problems with enforcing the rights that are already in state law, legislators should amend the existing law rather than add an amendment to the constitution, she said.
David Ward, past president of the Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Marsy’s law would do little for victims because it does not provide resources for a crime victim to make sure their rights are upheld. The bill would benefit only “a slim minority” of victims who could hire an attorney to enforce their rights, he said.
“For the vast majority of crime victims, Marsy’s Law is meaningless,” Ward said.
Sen. John Schickel, a Union Republican, said he voted for Marsy’s Law in 2018, but he now opposes it.
“If I believed for a minute this law helped victims, I would be for it,” Schickel said. “But anything that impedes the court from finding the truth would … hurt victims.
“The rights of crime victims are important,” Schickel said. “Kentucky’s victim’s bill of rights needs to be improved. But he said, “this bill will not help crime victims and will cause chaos in the courts.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse