America has been a country that continues to expand the boundaries of liberty and justice. This means as a nation, the law is an ever-changing landscape and continues to be altered by citizen interaction with the justice system. In recent times, changes in victim’s rights have been the subject of several proposed legislative changes that have opened a new debate across the United States.
The most recent of these is called Marsy’s Law.
The Murder of Marsy Nicholas
Marsy’s Law began as the reaction of one family to the legal system for violent crimes in California. It was to change the face of the legal landscape and awaken the public to the many loopholes that criminals had within the system at the time, or even those alleged criminals.
The story of Marsy Nicholas is a tragedy in the classical sense. Marsy was a senior in college, attending school at UC Santa Barbara in California. During the 1983 school year, she was continually stalked and eventually murdered by an ex-boyfriend named Kerry Conley. Just one week following the murder of Marsy Nicholas, her mother and brother were in a local grocery outlet, when they saw Kerry Conley in the same store. The family had been visiting Marsy’s new gravesite that day and were dumbstruck at finding the accused individual was already released on bail until the trial.
Although Conley was eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced by a Los Angeles jury to serve life in prison with no possibility of parole. It still didn’t change the shock that the family of Marsy Nicholas went through, having seen the man who murdered her running around free while Marsy laid in the ground dead. The unfortunate way the Marsy Nicholas bail release was handled by the California courts caused the Nicholas family to become proactive about changing this for other families impacted by violent crimes.
Legislation Leading up to Marsy’s Law
There now exist a number of state and federal laws which proceeded the existence of Marsy’s Law, with each having an important impact on this newest victim’s rights in different states. Although the most important propositions to influence Marsy’s Law came out of California. The State of California has been at the forefront of most modern laws regarding victims of violent crimes, the legal rights of their families and their loved ones.
- California Proposition 8 (1982)
The early forerunner of the true Victim’s Bill of Rights, additionally changed the state of California’s constitution to include Section 28 to Article 1 therein. This small but relevant change did not require major editing. It actually became the foundation that breaks ground for the future of Marsy’s Law.
The primary goals of this early bill addressed the rights of convicts and those suspected of crimes, and to begin extending rights for crime victims. Both the California ordinary statutes and state constitutions were amended to achieve this. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation when there was nothing else like in California, the West Coast, or in the United States, at the time.
Proposition 8 even addressed the need for better school safety standards. The actual text reads as,
“All students and staff of public primary, elementary, junior high and senior high schools have the inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe, secure and peaceful”.
It also addressed public safety for posting bail with criminal or non-criminal intent and the right to truth in evidence for all persons. This piece of lawmaking was voted over in 1982. It would be a primary example of needs that would later be further explored and revised with Marsy’s Law.
- California Proposition 83 / Jessica’s Law (2006)
This would be approved and create the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act or ‘Jessica’s Law’. In three terms his list of conflicting views that included opposing Proposition 83, a measure that was passed to protect children against paroled sex offenders named after a 9-year-old girl that was murdered, the law passed as ‘Jessica’s Law’.
Cooley said it wasn’t well-written law material, and that “…not liking sex offenders is a good thing and a popular thing, but when are creating something to deal with them you have to think it through.” It was a very long, complex, and heartfelt obligation I felt once but also included some more changes to the California Penal Code and the Welfare and Institutions Code.
‘Jessica’s Law’ still passed without his blessing in California. But just less than a full 7 days later at the 2008 elections, Cooley won a third term and was put harshly back under fire for violations of ‘Jessica’s Law’ with defense attorneys and district judges concerning a group of sexual offenders whose prison terms were all completed. He sought less than the mandatory time for some prisoners and ignored the rights of victims altogether. Cooley did not run for a fourth term.
- California Proposition 9 / the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008
The State of California officially approved Proposition 9 on November 4, 2008, putting Marsy’s Law into full effect. Also known as the Victim’s Bill of Rights Act, this provided a California constitutional amendment of additional rights for victims. All victims could now request a Marsy’s Law card. This card contained exact sections of the Victims’ Bill of Rights for reference, as well as other related resources. Any crime victim could access information on the new law, along with information about locally available Victim Witness Assistance Center data. This was all handled by the Victim Services Unit through the appointed Attorney General offices.
Los Angeles County District Attorney and Republican party member Stephen Cooley expressed great opposition toward Proposition 9, on the basis that it would simply bypass and sweep aside legislation that had taken decades to review judicially, put into place, and scrutinize. Also, he argued that Marsy’s Law as proposed played on voter sympathy, and used a young female victim’s name as a totem to gain empathy as a selling point. Although Cooley was well known for unpopular political and legal opinions.
Under the newly approved Marsy’s Law, victims are defined by California in their state constitution. This means someone who suffers by being threatened or with direct physical contact. A victim could not be a spouse, parental figures, children, brothers, sisters, and provides for dead victims to be legally represented. The law also allows representation for minors, and all sex crime related activities, especially one that is exposed to sexually deviant artistic avenues of victimization.
Marsy’s Law: The California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act
The newly passed law and proposed constitutional amendment sought equal constitutional protections for all violent crime victims, as well as their surviving family members. The support for Marsy’s Law has been great, but also opposition has cast itself over the looming process of making the law, getting it passed, and the interpretation of it. A wide variety of people have spoken out in favor or against Marsy’s Law, but not without generating a public opinion about the issues inherent to the legislation.
As with all new law making, the process takes time, resources, and the agreement of the greater body politic to move things along. Marsy’s Law is settled upon the sound foundations of other battles that have been fought in a natural progression over the last few decades. Like any other kind of human rights law, there had to be cohesion and agreement on how the law will be interpreted. For all people involved with a violent crime must be accounted for and given their due diligence, while managing to protect the rights of both the defense and prosecution side of the court case.
In truth, Marsy’s Law has inspired a safer America, while activating social changes by the issues that it passing confirmed to California. This new found confidence in our legal system is greatly due to the incredible minds that supported the current White House administration under President Donald Trump.
“Too often a victim isn’t afforded the basic rights in the criminal justice system,” said Dr. Henry Nicholas, Founder of Marsy’s Law for All and Marsy’s older brother. “Victims aren’t given information, notification, or the right to make their voice heard, and that’s not right. Together we are now finally doing something about it.”
The Murder of Miranda Fenner
Another case that made public opinion take notice in California happened in 1998, just five years after Marsy Nicholas death. The murder of Miranda Fenner happened in the town of Laurel, Montana.
On November 15, 1998, Miranda Fenner was working, she was employed at a local video store. Approximately 8:15 that evening, a motorist noticed someone crawling out on the front walkway of the video outlet. The driver stopped, called 911, and police discovered Fenner’s body with multiple stab wounds to the head, neck, and a slashed throat. Despite being airlifted to St. Vincent Healthcare hospital in Billings, Montana, she died in under two hours. Miranda Fenner was only 18 at the time of her death and the case would become one of the highest profile cases for a teenager, even though it remains unsolved.
In over 700 interviewed persons, no suspects were named publicly. No motive or suspect could be made. Later in the year 2000, police allegedly had engaged a man during a shootout, before his death was final, he is said to have made statements about being involved with Miranda Fenner’s murder. Police said these statements were unconfirmed and rumors. The case gained national attention, and was reopened but never solved by the Billings cold case unit.
Miranda Fenner’s mother Sherry Fenner would be an early advocate for in stating Marsy’s Law in Montana during 2015, thus leading to similar intentioned propositions in multiple states around the country.
Marsy’s Law Initiatives Across the United States
The passage of Marsy’s Law by California has inspired initiatives in other states. The attempt to pass similar laws has been a slow but steady process. Like California, the voting population in Illinois were the next to make an amendment to the official state constitution. This similar legislation would be named Marsy’s Law for Illinois.
Several states are now promoting efforts to introduce similar state initiatives. The current efforts include the states of Ohio, South Dakota, Georgia, Montana, Nevada, and Hawaii. Even passage of Marsy’s Law legislation is not a guarantee of state-level changes being universally accepted or instituted.
California has made a number of revisions to the original legislation wince 2008, but there has been fierce opposition every step of the way, particularly by the West coast media. An example coming from the Los Angeles Times reads as follows, “If the concern is the protection of families from further victimization, as proponents claim, that goal can be met without granting families a new and inappropriate role in prosecutions…”
The legitimacy of Marsy’s Law and its intent is hardly unreasonable, but making laws impact all members of the society, that can take a lifetime. Granted that some people that commit crimes are not the example of the average person, still many get more law protected rights than their victims ever did. Yet the laws made permanent in society must reflect the needs of the whole demographic cross-section, all people and all of their circumstances must be give freedom to access legal justice opportunities. If not, then the society will be corrupted from the start and nobody benefits from any good works done to balance the scales of justice.
For any victim of a crime, these legislations and constitutional amendments directly apply to you. Victims have long been ignored in society, having no voice, no rights to handle their own defense, no ability to speak during trials about their own personal experience, but that is changing. It has taken decades of growth to enable the things necessary and put into place like we are just beginning to see now in the USA. The work being done by people first hand to allow Marsy’s Law, Jessica’s Law and other similar amendments is building a better future for all states.
Someday, the nation may be able to actually say, that people are safe, protected and free from the fear of victimization. The time it takes to make wide sweeping changes is shown by the example California has shown as a state, along with Illinois and other active contributions to the initiatives that may one day make Marsy’s Law a reality in all 50 states. Each victory is another step towards fulfilling the inspiration for a safer America. Now is a great century for political, social, and legal changes, being a time when the national public opinion is forming a collaborative effort and voting in a unilateral agreement on many issues.
For current Marsy’s Law card information, please access the following websites:
For More Information About Marsy’s Law, in the State of California or to Find Other Local Agencies Closer to Your Regions, Please Use the Following Contact Information:
Office of Victims’ Services /California Office of the Attorney General
Post Office Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550
Toll-Free Phone Number : (877) 433-9069