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California man donates $1M to N.D. Marsy’s Law supporters; 44,000 signatures submitted to get measure on ballot

BISMARCK - A California billionaire bankrolling a national effort to expand the rights of crime victims and enshrine them in state constitutions has dedicated more than $1 million to Marsy's Law for North Dakota, supporters disclosed Tuesday befo...

BISMARCK – A California billionaire bankrolling a national effort to expand the rights of crime victims and enshrine them in state constitutions has dedicated more than $1 million to Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, supporters disclosed Tuesday before submitting more than 44,000 signatures to put the measure to voters.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger has until June 14 to verify at least 26,904 signatures for the constitutional amendment – which faces opposition from defense attorneys and prosecutors alike – to land on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Organizers said they gathered signatures from across the state using 15 unpaid volunteers and 30 hired petition circulators who were paid a total of $218,750.

The campaign’s sole contributor is Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Nicholas, whose sister, Marsy Nicholas, was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Their mother was confronted by the accused killer in a grocery store a week later, not realizing he’d been released on bail.

Nicholas has contributed $1,052,666 to the North Dakota effort, of which $404,569 has been spent, according to figures provided by organizers Tuesday. The next campaign disclosure statements are due Friday.

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Measure sponsor and Mandan attorney Shane Goettle said that while Nicholas is “a catalyst” for the North Dakota measure, efforts to elevate victims’ rights to the constitutional level date back to the 1970s.

Speaking at the Capitol with boxes full of signed petitions at her feet, Marsha Lembke, state director for the measure, said it will strengthen victims’ rights “so they are on equal legal standing to the rights of the accused – no more and no less.”

Sponsoring committee chairwoman Kathleen Wrigley said the proposed protections were written to mimic existing ones under state law. Noting that North Dakota is one of 18 states without constitutional rights for crime victims, she tried to dispel concerns about the measure, which has support from victim advocates and was endorsed by the North Dakota Sheriff’s & Deputies Association.

“Marsy’s Law for North Dakota cannot, does not and will not ever diminish the rights of the accused criminal defendants,” said Wrigley, wife of Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley.

Both the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the North Dakota State’s Attorneys’ Association oppose the measure.

Officials with the two groups say existing protections adopted by lawmakers in 1987 and updated repeatedly since then are working – as is the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification program – and can be improved through the Legislature if needed.

“We’re changing the North Dakota constitution because some eccentric billionaire in California had a bad experience with the California courts,” Fargo defense attorney Mark Friese said.

Aaron Birst, executive director of the State’s Attorneys’ Association, said 70 of 130 members attended its winter meeting in January, “and everybody was vehemently opposed to it.” Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning of Dickinson is the lone state’s attorney on the 29-member sponsoring committee. Goettle acknowledged a “difference of agreement” the legal community about it.

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California voters approved the original Marsy’s Law in 2008, and Illinois voters passed a version of it in 2012. Montana and South Dakota residents will vote on versions of the law in November, and Nicholas also is pushing for it in Hawaii, Nevada, Kentucky and Georgia.

The North Dakota measure would amend the constitution with expanded victims’ rights, including the rights to be free from intimidation, to be heard in court proceedings and to be promptly notified when a defendant is released or escapes from custody.

Birst and Friese both raised concerns that the measure would give victims the right to refuse pre-trial depositions by the defense, leading to fewer plea bargains and more trials where defendants have the right to cross-examine their accusers.

“A prosecutor’s job is to find justice, not just get a conviction,” Birst said, adding, “There’s real heartburn with that provision.”

Goettle said such liberal access to victims is “quite unique” to North Dakota. He noted the prosecutor’s office will still have full access to the victim, and the defense will have access to all of the prosecutor’s evidence.

“A victim can still consent to a deposition, but in making this particular change, we’re actually aligning ourselves with …. practices that prevail around the rest of the country,” he said.

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