A proposal to amend the New Hampshire constitution had its first public hearing at the state house today. The amendment is designed to give crime victims more rights in the criminal justice system.
Today’s hearing drew some big name supporters but also some unexpected opponents. NHPR reporter Jason Moon was at the hearing and he joins me now to talk about it.
So, what is this victims’ rights amendment? What sort of rights would it give a victim?
Supporters imagine it as a set of rights given to victims that is parallel to the Miranda rights of the accused.
The proposed amendment lists 10 specific rights that range from being notified of all court proceedings involving their offender, to the right to refuse an interview from the accused’s attorney.
The push to add the amendment here in New Hampshire is part of a nationwide campaign that’s funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas. Nicholas’ sister, Marsy, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. His family, unaware that the accused murderer was out on bail, ran into him at the grocery store.
Nicholas has been financing a campaign to add victims’ rights into state constitutions ever since. Already, five states have adopted some version of Marsy’s Law into their constitutions. And they are actively campaigning in at least four states right now, including New Hampshire. Their ultimate goal is to amend the U.S. constitution.
It’s worth pointing out that many of these rights are already law in New Hampshire, but advocates say they need to be elevated to the constitution to be enforceable.
So if the rights are already in New Hampshire law, why do supporters say they need to be added to the state constitution?
Well, supporters say as long as you have the rights of criminal defendants in the constitution, they will always trump those of victims. They also argue that victims’ rights aren't enforceable unless they're in the constitution.
Now, opponents say the idea that you can’t enforce a law because it’s not in the constitution is just wrong. They point out that almost all of New Hampshire’s laws are in statute.
So, you were at this hearing today – what happened? Who was there?
A lot of supporters came out for the hearing, included several crime victims who shared heart-wrenching stories that bear similarity to the story of Marsy, the amendment’s namesake.
Among them was John Cantin, a Manchester resident whose daughter was killed in 2009 by her husband.
“When a family has lost their child like I have, they should be guaranteed equal rights to the murderer. They should be guaranteed fairness, dignity, and respect. They should be part of the process.”
Cantin says his daughter’s husband had been earlier arrested for abusing her, but was released on $40 bail. When Cantin and his daughter went back to her house to get some of their things, Cantin says the husband was waiting for them -- and that’s when he shot and killed her. The implication of his story and others was that had a Marsy’s Law amendment been in place, things might have been different.
There were also some high profile political supporters present, including Governor Chris Sununu.
“We need 100%. We need to make sure this comes out with a real head of steam, so people across this state in their towns and in their counties really know that it has the confidence of this body. We don’t want this to just barely pass by a couple of votes. We really need to make sure it goes forward with strength.”
This amendment enjoys broad bipartisan support – its sponsors include 22 out of 24 state senators. The prime sponsor is Senator Sharon Carson, who is chairperson of the Senate Judiciary committee – the committee that held the public hearing. In fact, all the senators on that committee are listed as co-sponsors.
Wow, so who is opposed to the amendment?
At the hearing the New Hampshire ACLU and some criminal defense attorneys testified in opposition. They raised several concerns about the potential for the amendment to violate due process for the accused.
But the really interesting opposing testimony came from Republican Senator Bob Giuda, who is listed as a sponsor of the bill.
“We cannot lose sight of the rest of the constitution in an emotional rush that leverages the horrific circumstances facing many victims, into inadequately crafted changes to the fundamental principles of our self-governance.”
You may wonder, as I did, why Senator Giuda would testify against a bill he is sponsoring. When I asked, he told me that he does support an amendment for victims’ rights, just not this one in its current form.
He says his name was added to the list of sponsors before he really knew the details of the amendment, and he guesses there could be other sponsors who are in the same position.
So there’s a chance that the strong political support the amendment enjoys is softer than it might seem.