N.H. Supreme Court Takes Middle Ground In Rape Shield Dispute

Sep 29, 2016

The family of Lizzi Marriott addressed the press after the jury released its verdict for Seth Mazzaglia in August, 2014.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

  The Supreme Court has ordered comprehensive written briefs containing details of victim Lizzi Marriott’s sexual past will remain sealed during Seth Mazzaglia’s appeal proceedings.  However, attorneys’ oral arguments will remain open to the public – and apparently unrestricted. The justices also did not restrict the content of their written opinion.

A jury convicted Mazzaglia of murder in 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Lyn Schollett  is with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She and other victim’s advocates are calling the order “an exciting outcome” for both Marriott’s family, and all victims of sexual assault.

Seth Mazzaglia, center, NH Public Defender Melissa Davis, right
Credit AP Pool

  For Chris Johnson, Defendant Seth Mazzaglia’s attorney, it’s a “mixed outcome.” If Mazzaglia loses his appeal, Johnson says, “it’s traditional to explain why. In order to explain why, they’ll need to explain what the underlying information is.” Johnson says this outcome allows the court to be transparent in its decision.

The appeal centers on a trial judge’s decision to exclude evidence about victim Lizzi Marriott’s history of consensual sexual behavior. Schollett applauded that judge’s use of New Hampshire’s rape shield law. These laws, she says, “ensure that irrelevant and prejudicial information about a victim is not introduced in trial to distract a jury or to distract a court.”

Now, Mazzaglia’s  defense attorneys are appealing that jury’s conviction. “The appeal is challenging the correctness of the trial judge’s ruling keeping that evidence out of the trial” says Johnson. He says because evidence of Marriott’s sexual history could have resulted in a different outcome, Mazzaglia’s trial was unfair.

The Supreme Court initially said it would unseal the briefs containing evidence of the victim’s sexual past during the appeal, but also invited both parties to weigh in.  

Victims’ rights advocates said such an unsealing would dissuade future assault victims from coming forward. The defense argued sealing the evidence would compromise the appeal, and the state’s commitment to transparency in court proceedings.    

Even though oral arguments and the justices’ decision will apparently be unrestricted, Schollett says she hopes “the supreme court will be respectful of the fact that this is sensitive information that has been kept out of the public part of the proceeding.”

The appeal could proceed as early as November.