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Debate begins over proposed Marsy’s Law for N.D. crime victims

BISMARCK - Backers of a proposed ballot measure that would elevate the rights of crime victims to the constitutional level in North Dakota insisted Tuesday that it will not erode defendants' rights, but defense attorneys warned that the idea has ...

BISMARCK – Backers of a proposed ballot measure that would elevate the rights of crime victims to the constitutional level in North Dakota insisted Tuesday that it will not erode defendants’ rights, but defense attorneys warned that the idea has been rejected before and could have unintended consequences.

Sponsors of the proposed constitutional amendment submitted their petition to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Tuesday morning. If he approves it for circulation, they must gather 26,904 valid signatures by July 11 to get the measure on the November 2016 ballot.

Sponsoring committee chairwoman Kathleen Wrigley, whose brother, 21-year-old Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Boyle, was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1991, said the North Dakota version of California’s “Marsy’s Law” would elevate and strengthen the existing rights of victims and witnesses under state law and would not diminish the protections defendants now enjoy under the state constitution.

“The time is now that victims and their families have the same legal footing as the people who are accused of hurting them,” Wrigley, wife of Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, said during a press conference at the state Capitol.

One key addition under the proposed amendment is that victims would have the right to refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the defendant, his attorney or “any person acting on behalf of the defendant.”

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Bismarck defense attorney Justin Vinje, the immediate past president of the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, worries that the language – which also broadens who may exercise the rights of a victim – will result in less cooperation in police investigations and court proceedings.

Defendants would be less likely to reach settlement agreements and more likely to pursue jury trials where they can question victims and witnesses in open court, thus increasing the costs to taxpayers, Vinje said.

“I don’t know that anybody’s complained that they’re not getting adequate treatment under the law as it is, so we are trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” he said.

The board of the defense attorneys association came out Tuesday as officially opposed the measure.

Sponsoring committee member Shane Goettle of Mandan, an attorney and former state commerce commissioner, said defendants will still have their constitutional right to confront witnesses and their accuser in the courtroom.

“What they will not be able to do is use the discovery process to intimidate and harass the victim,” he said.

The fair treatment standards for victims and witnesses in existing state law were passed by the 1987 Legislature at the request of the governor and attorney general.

Fargo defense attorney Bruce Quick, who was working in the attorney general’s office at the time, said three separate commissions studied the issue and there was concern from judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike about carving victims’ rights into the constitution.

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“There was widespread opposition to that from just about every sector,” he said, adding, “If there’s a constitutional right, what exactly does that mean? Does that mean a victim has a say over what happens in the case, to the exclusion of the prosecutor?”

Quick said North Dakota was a national leader in passing the law, which requires victims to be notified of court proceedings, available counseling and treatment services, the status of the investigation and the alleged offender’s custody status.

But Goettle said experience and examples from other states since then have shown the need for Marsy’s Law, named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, a California college student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. California and Illinois have different versions of the law in place, and backers are trying to get it on the ballot in several other states, including Minnesota and Montana.

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert, a petition sponsor, said victims “need to know that we will not allow them to be victimized again.”

“I don’t see an issue why this shouldn’t pass with a 99 percent margin,” he said.

Related Topics: CRIME
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