Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

The television ad is ubiquitous. And compelling.

It shows a young woman being watched menacingly by a bald, glowering man. We’re not presented with the exact details of their relationship, but he’s clearly stalking her.

It ends with the woman walking through an eerily silent, depopulated parking garage. The man who was been tailing her is in a car. He gets out. She stops.

We aren’t shown what happens, but the slasher-movie ambience would lead us to believe that he is not about to give her a dozen roses.

The advertisement is meant to nudge us into supporting Marsy’s Law, a ballot question that Pennsylvania voters will decide next month, presuming that a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters in Commonwealth Court challenging its constitutionality is unsuccessful.

The smart money has it getting a resounding thumbs-up from voters. Marsy’s Law seeks to enshrine the rights of crime victims in Pennsylvania’s Constitution, and, hey, who out there doesn’t want crime victims to have rights, particularly if they or their families have been the victims of particularly heinous misdeeds?

Pennsylvania voters might want to look before they leap when it comes to Marsy’s Law, however. While perhaps well-intended and a popular measure for lawmakers to get behind, it would, among other things, worryingly tip the balance when it comes to the rights of the accused at trial, potentially hinder the ability of the public and media to gain information about crimes, and carve into the Constitution rights that are already in place by statute.

The brainchild of California tech billionaire Henry J. Nicholas III, it’s named for Nicholas’ sister, who was murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. California voters approved a version of Marsy’s Law in 2008, and other states have followed, including Florida, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. If Pennsylvania joins them, Marsy’s Law would amend Pennsylvania’s Constitution to address the rights of crime victims. Among the long list of provisions within it, it would allow victims to refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery requests made by the accused, allow victims to have “privacy,” allow them to provide information before someone is paroled, and “reasonable protection” from the person accused of a crime.

Fundamentally, Marsy’s Law assumes guilt before innocence. And the bedrock of the American criminal justice system is the notion that those accused of crimes are innocent until their guilt is proven. With the possibility of their liberty or life being taken from them, the rights of the accused should not be placed on an equal– or lesser – plane than the rights of victims.

Lorrain Haw, a Philadelphia criminal-justice reformer who has joined the League of Women Voters in their lawsuit, explained, “I stand for the rights of victims. But I don’t think that they should take the place of the rights of the accused. The Marsy’s Law amendment goes too far. Some of it is good – like considering the safety of victims and their families at bail hearings. But mostly it wants to take things away from people accused of crimes before they are even convicted.”

Besides, Pennsylvania already has a victim advocate’s office and, in 1995, the Legislature approved the Crime Victims Act, and its provisions include the rights of victims to be kept abreast in how a case is progressing, and it allows them to make impact statements at sentencing.

Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional law scholar at Duquesne University, made a good point in Greensburg’s Tribune-Review that we all should remember when considering Marsy’s Law: “I would have rather seen the Legislature come up with money for victim services rather than the hubbub of passing a meaningless constitutional amendment.”

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