House overwhelmingly passes bill to strengthen state’s rape shield law

  • Melissa Marriott, mother of Lizzi Marriott, speaks at the press conference on June 14, 2016 held at the NH Legislative Office Building (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff)

Monitor staff
Thursday, May 04, 2017

A bill designed to enhance the privacy protections for victims of sexual assault will head to the governor’s desk with overwhelming support from the House.

In a vote of 328-30, legislators passed Senate Bill 9, which was introduced on the heels of a highly publicized appeal made by convicted murderer and rapist Seth Mazzaglia to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Mazzaglia was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2014 for strangling and murdering 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 existing rape shield law. The higher court ultimately denied his request for a new trial.

SB 9 clarifies the definition of sexual activity under the rape shield law 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 overturns the lower court’s ruling.

Marriott’s parents, Bob and Melissa Marriott, sat in the gallery Thursday afternoon watching the legislative process unfold with the support of local advocates. Moments after lawmakers voted, Bob Marriott spoke with reporters, calling the news “a great relief.”

“It’s very important that victims feel comfortable coming forward,” he said.

He added that it was “very disheartening” to learn that victims are afraid to come forward and seek justice because they’re afraid for their privacy. “I think this goes a long way toward alleviating some of those concerns.”

SB 9 does not limit or take away a defendant’s right to argue before a judge that certain pieces of a victim’s sexual activity are relevant and should be admitted. Rather, the bill provides courts with explicit guidance on what constitutes sexual activity and on what information should be excluded from trial.

From the outset, the bill received opposition from some House Republicans, including the 29 who voted against it’s passage Thursday. Those who shot down the bill critiqued its definition of sexual assault, calling the language “overly broad” and “ambiguous.”

The bill’s authors looked to state and federal laws for guidance on the definition of sexual assault. The final language of the bill was vetted and agreed upon by the state’s department of justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which has 13 member crisis centers.

Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, previously testified in support of SB 9 and once again called upon fellow legislators Thursday to vote “yes.”

“I would ask that the body support this bill and honor ourselves and make sure that no other victim of sexual assault has to worry whether or not they can come forward and seek justice and be protected under the laws of the state of New Hampshire,” he said.

In an email statement after the vote, House Majority Leader Richard Hinch, a Merrimack Republican, called the bill a “critical clarification,” noting that victims should not be forced to choose between their right to privacy and their right to seek justice.

“This is an important piece of legislation that protects the privacy of sexual assault victims, their families, and strengthens New Hampshire’s rape shield law,” Hinch said. “This will ensure that a victim’s sexual history will remain sealed from the jury, public and press while not infringing upon a defendant’s rights or jeopardizing due process.”

Gov. Chris Sununu previously expressed his support for the bill, and said Thursday he will sign the bill into law when it reaches his desk.