×

House committee backs rape shield bill

  • Seth Mazzaglia looks back at his mother as he is escorted out of the Strafford County Superior Court in Dover, N.H., in August 2014. Mazzaglia was sentenced to life without parole for killing University of New Hampshire student Elizabeth Marriott. On Wednesday Nov. 16, 2016, Mazzaglia's appeal was heard before the state's Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Jim Cole/FILE)



Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Despite some Republican opposition, a House committee endorsed a bill Tuesday meant to strengthen the state’s rape shield law that protects victims’ sexual history from being used in court.

“As a member of a family who has been the victim of sexual violence, I think that we need to stand up, respond to this kind of vicious behavior by saying ‘no,’ ” said Rep. Joseph Hagan, a Chester Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. “We are not going to assault you a second, a third, a 57th time.”

The vote was 11-4.

The state’s rape shield already bars from evidence a victim’s past sexual activity with people other than the accused, but the law doesn’t define what that could include. The legislation seeks to provide clarity, by defining sexual activity to include not just prior acts, but a victim’s thoughts or expressions related to sex and the use of contraceptives, among other topics.

The four House Republicans who opposed the bill centered their concerns on the definition, saying it was expansive and could remove discretion from courts.

“This overly broad definition of sexual activity I think will tie the courts’ hands,” said Rep. Robert Hull, a Grafton Republican.

But other committee members dismissed the concerns. They said the rape shield law gives the courts guidance, but a defendant can still argue before a judge that certain pieces of a victim’s sexual activity are relevant and should be admitted.

Republican Sen. Kevin Avard filed the bill after convicted murderer Seth Mazzaglia recently tested the state’s rape shield in his high-profile appeal, revealing a gray area not addressed in state law, advocates said. Mazzaglia was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison without parole for strangling and raping Elizabeth “Lizzi” Marriott, a 19-year-old University of New Hampshire student. He challenged on appeal whether a victim’s thoughts about certain sexual practices are protected under the state’s rape shield law. The Supreme Court denied Mazzaglia’s appeal and maintained a seal on Marriott’s record, but left a number of legal questions related to the rape shield’s application unanswered.

Marriott’s father, Bob Marriott, attended the executive session Tuesday to advocate for the bill’s passage.

“It’s very important that all victims know that what they tell police during the private investigation will be protected if it isn’t going to be needed for a defendant’s defense,” Bob Marriott said after the vote.

The bill also specifies that a victim’s sexual history should remain under seal on appeal unless the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturns the lower court’s ruling. The bill has already cleared the Senate and now goes to the full House.

The Judiciary Committee earlier this year rejected an amendment to similar legislation that sought to define sexual activity included in the rape shield law. In the days before the House committee vote, several Republican members had voiced skepticism of the latest bill, prompting a flurry of last-minute lobbying. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement Monday urging the committee to back the bill. Roughly 15 minutes before the Tuesday vote, Speaker Shawn Jasper and the House Majority Leader met with Republicans in a closed-door caucus meeting.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)