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Attorneys, coalition to be honored at conference after N.H. rape shield case

  • Rus Rilee, attorney for the Marriott Family, speaks at a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Concord held on June 14, 2016. (Monitor file) Monitor file

  • Bob Marriott, father of Lizzi Marriott, speaks at a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Concord held on June 14, 2016. (Monitor file)

  • Melissa Marriott, mother of Lizzi Marriott, speaks at the press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Concord held on June 14, 2016. (Monitor file)



Monitor staff
Sunday, May 07, 2017

In the last few months of 2016, national attention descended on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, where the future of the state’s long-standing rape shield law hung in the balance.

Advocacy groups, victims rights attorneys and sexual assault survivors waited with bated breath as the court considered opening up the private life of a 19-year-old rape and murder victim in the wake of her convicted killer’s appeal.

The court had given the parents of the young woman, Elizabeth “Lizzi” Marriott, intervener status in the case – a decision that many called unprecedented. In the end, they prevailed, and Seth Mazzaglia’s appeal was denied.

The Marriotts’ story will be front and center at a national conference to be held Thursday and Friday in Portland, Ore. The 2017 National Crime Victim Law Conference has invited as honored guests and speakers the family’s attorney, Rus Rilee; members of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence; and attorney Claudia Bayliff, who wrote a national brief in support of the family during the Supreme Court proceedings.

The National Crime Victim Law Institute announced Friday that it is awarding the group the 2017 Victims’ Rights Partnership Award in recognition of their collaborative efforts to advance victims rights.

The challenges Bob and Melissa Marriott overcame in their fight to maintain a seal on their daughter’s records highlighted for many in New Hampshire the importance of the rape shield law, and the need to strengthen it so that other victims would be saved from a similar fight.

“We needed to make sure that this didn’t start some sort of national trend that would erode victims rights across the country,” Rilee said. “The fact that the Marriotts had a seat at the table was a landmark event, not only in New Hampshire law but nationwide. There is a lot of interest in how we were able to make that happen.”

In addition to discussing that process, Bayliff said everyone will be encouraging conference attendees, many of whom are attorneys, “to push the envelope in their states” and use New Hampshire as an example of what is possible.

“The Marriott family deserves a great deal of credit for the strong advocates they’ve been on behalf of their daughter,” she said.

Rilee and Bob Marriott will open the conference by talking about the administrative rule change the Supreme Court made in early 2016 to allow appellate justices to open records previously sealed by the lower courts. Their fight began when the law was applied to the Mazzaglia case retroactively.

Marriott said in a recent interview that he feared in that moment that the court had “gutted rape shield.” He called the order surreal, and said his worst fears could have been realized had the state attorney general’s office, the coalition and others not acted swiftly to halt the court’s release of Lizzi’s personal records.

On the coalition’s behalf, Bayliff drafted a brief in support of the family that was co-signed by 12 state and national organizations with an interest in victims’ protections.

The coalition’s Executive Director Lyn Schollett said that during her two decades in advocacy work she had never had the chance to file on behalf of a victim; historically, coalition briefs have been filed in support of the state.

“We had the opportunity to bring together an incredibly strong cohort of organizations that care about victims rights,” she said.

Those efforts didn’t stop after the court victory. The fight continued at the State House, where just last week the Legislature voted overwhelmingly, 328-30, in support of a bill that enhances New Hampshire’s rape shield law.

The bill, which is awaiting Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature, clarifies the definition of sexual activity to include not just prior acts, but thoughts and expressions, too. It also specifies that a victim’s sexual history should remain under seal on appeal unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise.

“The exciting part of this being more than just litigation is we’re making real change for every rape victim who chooses to come forward,” Schollett said.

In the midst of Mazzaglia’s appeal, the coalition heard from victims that the case made them reconsider reporting, said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs.

“Victims are paying attention,” she said.

Marriott echoed that point, saying that while he feels comforted in the fact that Mazzaglia is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, not all victims achieve that measure of justice.

“It was nice to get in the fight, and we plan to keep fighting on,” he said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)