Last year, Seth Mazzaglia was convicted of the rape and murder of UNH student Lizzie Marriott. But after the conviction he sought to avoid being present for the sentencing hearing. He ultimately withdrew that request, but family members of the victim were surprised and angered. They had to face the prospect that they may not have their one chance throughout the proceedings to speak directly to the killer.
Democratic Representative Renny Cushing of Hampton joined Morning Edition. He’s a victim’s rights advocate whose father was murdered in 1988. And he’s hoping to change the law so this never happens again.
You have sponsored a bill that would make attendance to sentencing hearings mandatory for those receiving sentence. The victim’s right to make an impact statement to a defendant has been law for thirty years in New Hampshire. Why do you think this bill is necessary now?
I don’t think anyone ever anticipated that a convicted prisoner would assert a right not to be present at the time of his or her sentencing. But that’s what took place. We first saw this two years ago in a case in New Jersey. Someone had raped and murdered a woman, her mother wanted to give a victim impact statement at the time of sentencing and in that case the defendant asserted that he didn’t want to be present.
That case went all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court. That court found that under New Jersey law, the individual did not have a right to absent himself from that proceeding.
New Hampshire law is much like the law that’s written in every other state. It’s silent on the issue of whether or not the convicted person must be present. So what this bill is going to do is make it a policy that someone convicted of a violent crime will be present for the time of sentencing and will listen to the victim impact statement. So that no family like the Marriotts has to go through this dance where a prisoner decides he doesn’t want to listen to the family of the woman he raped and murdered and disposed of her body explain the impact of the crime upon them before the community. That’s just not acceptable.
No other state has passed a requirement like this into law. If New Hampshire passes it, do you think other states will follow suit?
Absolutely, I’ve had a lot of conversations with lawmakers and victim advocates across the country who were outraged at the conduct in this particular case of the individual saying he didn’t want to listen to the family ‘whine.’ I think if we’re successful here, it will be replicated in other places.
You gave an impact statement at the trial of your father’s murderer. For those who have never been in that position, can you explain why being able to do that is so important?
Our criminal justice system is about winning, losing and punishing. It’s about the state versus an individual who’s committed a crime or is accused of committing a crime. And there’s really no place for victims in it. But 30 years ago, New Hampshire and other states began to recognize that victims are stakeholders in the criminal justice process.
And during a trial, you often see the victim themselves put on trial. They become somehow culpable in the case and their reputations get sullied. Nobody really cares what happens to the victim.
This is the first instance, the only instance, where a victim gets to speak before the community, before the court and before the person who caused them so much pain about the impact of their crime upon them—and to try to speak for the victim’s voice. Not for the state, not for the defendant, but for the victim. And it really strikes a nerve to think that their voices could be taken from them or that they won’t be heard.