Supporters fight on after N.H. House rejects Marsy’s Law

  • Purple flags representing the number of violent crimes committed in New Hampshire in 2016 are seen outside the State House on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Rep. Debra Altschiller speaks in favor of Marsy’s Law at the State House on Thursday, April 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/26/2018 10:43:45 AM

Supporters of incorporating crime victims’ rights into New Hampshire’s Constitution say their fight isn’t over despite an overwhelming defeat Thursday in the House.

“It’s not over. This is a speed bump. Victims need and deserve enforceable rights,” said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “New Hampshire was the last state to pass a Victim Bill of Rights. We will not be the last state to pass a constitutional amendment.”

The House voted, 284-51, against the amendment known as Marsy’s Law. The measure needed the support of 235 of the state’s 391 representatives to advance and be placed on the November ballot for voters’ consideration.

Rep. Claire Rouillard, R-Goffstown, told fellow House members Thursday that she sympathizes with victims, but that Marsy’s Law – also known as CACR 22 – is not the answer for New Hampshire. She said the Legislature has already provided a Victim Bill of Rights, which doesn’t disappear in a court of law.

Marsy’s Law “is not right for the citizens. The words are unclear. The consequences immense,” she said from a lectern Thursday.

Early on, Marsy’s Law gained strong bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed March 22 in a 20-3 vote. The amendment, however, went on to face an uphill battle in the House, where on April 10 members of the Judiciary and Criminal Justice committees recommended, 24-11, that the bill be killed. The vote marked the first legislative setback for the bill, with the second blow delivered Thursday on the House floor.

Per a motion from Rep. Dan Eaton, D-Stoddard, the amendment cannot be reintroduced this legislative session. A new bill can come forward next year.

New Hampshire is not in uncharted territory. Efforts to add a victims’ rights amendment to state constitutions in Kentucky and Georgia began in 2015, and since then debate has ensued over several versions of Marsy’s Law. Only this year will the measure finally go before voters on both states’ ballots.

Some New Hampshire lawmakers opposed to Marsy’s Law have repeatedly cited the outside money being spent to pass an amendment in a state that already has a detailed Victim Bill of Rights on the books. They have instead called for a “minimalist” amendment that leaves implementation to the Legislature.

The New Hampshire campaign – like others around the country – hired lobbyists, public relations professionals and lawyers, bankrolled by California billionaire Henry Nicholas. Nicholas has fought for the constitutional changes in state legislatures since his sister Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.

Should a new proposal surface in 2019, some lawmakers argued it should not be tied to the national Marsy’s Law campaign.

New Hampshire is known for having some of the strongest victims’ rights laws in the country, yet proponents of Marsy’s Law say the scale is tipped in favor of defendants because their rights are enumerated in the Constitution. Further, they note, the state Constitution has been amended five times to enhance protections for the accused, but not once to enshrine rights for crime victims.

“Victims should have constitutional rights when through no fault of their own they are thrust into the criminal justice system,” Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, said Thursday from the House floor.

Altschiller, who spoke first in support of Marsy’s Law, recapped some of the emotional testimony at recent committee hearings in the Senate and House. She recalled by name a handful of the crime victims and surviving family members who spoke in favor of the bill, including Bill Greeley, who wasn’t notified that the man convicted of killing his sister had jumped a prison wall and was on the run.

“Victims can and have told us that their profound loss of control after having suffered at the hands of another is compounded by the marginalization of their voices and their experience through the criminal justice system,” Altschiller said.

Survivors said they’re not defeated by the House vote. The Marsy’s Law effort provided them with a platform to use their voices to inspire change and they’re prepared to fight on, they said in statements provided by the coalition.

“I’m a survivor that has not shared my story until recently, and being involved with Marsy’s Law has given me strength to tell my story in hopes of making sure no other child has to suffer in silence,” Tina Smith, a sexual assault survivor and Concord resident, said in a statement. “I understand that it’s difficult to look a sexual assault survivor in the eye while they discuss their victimization, but it’s even harder for survivors to share these stories with strangers. But we won’t stop. We won’t be silenced again.”

Twenty-five years have passed since the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office first recommended that victims’ rights be included in the state Constitution. The Marsy’s Law debate over the last several months has spotlighted efforts to enhance crime victims’ rights, in large part thanks to the survivors who courageously shared their stories, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said.

“Supporting victims of crime has long been central to the mission of the New Hampshire Department of Justice. Our commitment to them is unwavering,” he said.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a strong supporter of Marsy’s Law, said the House vote saddened him.

“I’ve spent too much time with victims and their families to know that New Hampshire has missed an incredible opportunity to do what’s right,” Sununu said.

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

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