Two police chiefs kept an eye on the room, talking to people they knew, listening to the opposing sides.
An attorney for the family of a murdered UNH student sat in the front row next to the grieving father. The executive director of the a victim advocacy coalition reviewed her notes before delivering her testimony.
On Tuesday morning, the state Senate chambers were packed with dozens of people, including victims, lawmakers, civil rights attorneys, prosecutors and police officers, many of whom spoke over the course of four hours at the first public hearing on a proposal to amend the state constitution to include rights for crime victims.
Opinions clashed at times over whether the constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law is right for New Hampshire, with several civil rights attorneys, legal scholars and lawmakers encouraging the five-member Senate Judiciary Committee to consider striking the bill down, or at least modifying its language. The testimony, however, was mostly in favor of the amendment that surpasses the victim bill of rights, which is already state law.
Supporters dressed in purple displayed newly printed signs with a capital M, the logo for Marsy’s Law. Some wore smaller symbols of support, like round white stickers or small silver pins.
Gov. Chris Sununu opened testimony by telling Senate and House members that how they vote will likely influence voter sentiment at the polls in November, and that a narrow victory in the Legislature could cause doubt in some constituents’ minds.
“We need to make sure this comes out of the Legislature with a real head of steam, so people across the state know it has our confidence and we’ve done our job in providing the backing and support,” Sununu said.
The constitutional amendment requires supermajority support in both the New Hampshire House and Senate, and a two-thirds vote at the polls. In recent weeks, nearly the entire 24-member Senate, as well as the Speaker of the House and the House Democratic Leader have backed the proposal.
A handful of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as the fathers of murder victims, told personal stories about how they believe their experiences in the criminal justice system would have been different had Marsy’s Law been in place.
Manchester resident John Cantin told lawmakers about his daughter, Melissa “Missy” Charbonneau, who was shot and killed by her estranged husband at age 29. Missy’s husband, Jonathan, fatally shot her at their home in fall 2009, and shot Cantin before committing suicide.
Cantin recalled Tuesday how Jonathan had previously tried to strangle Missy to death. At the time, attempted strangulation was a misdemeanor-level crime in New Hampshire, and Jonathan was released on just $40 bail.
“I went with Missy to help her move out, and he was waiting for us. He shot and killed Missy, and nearly killed me,” Cantin said. “After Missy’s death, I have honored her memory by helping to improve the system of justice that failed her.”
Cantin, who successfully pushed for changes to New Hampshire’s choking laws, called for more meaningful action from the Legislature.
“Together we could work to change 100 more statutes, but the fact remains: Until we provide victims with constitutional rights that are both meaningful and enforceable, we will never have a system that is just,” he said.
Thirty-five states have victims’ rights incorporated into their constitutions in some form. Just a handful of those states have passed the more detailed amendment known as Marsy’s Law in the past decade. Crime victims don’t have constitutional rights in New Hampshire or in 14 other states.
Marsy’s Law is named for the late Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. After her murder, her family set out to ensure equal rights for crime victims across the United States, beginning in their home state of California, which was first to pass the comprehensive constitutional victims’ rights law in 2008. Since then, Marsy’s brother, California billionaire Henry Nicholas, has funded similar efforts in other states, including New Hampshire.
While support for Marsy’s Law has been overwhelming and swift, some civil rights attorneys, defense lawyers and law scholars encouraged the Senate Judiciary to take a step back and thoroughly vet the proposal.
“We need a constitutional amendment that does it right,” Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said, adding “this amendment does not.”
Giuda said he fears the current language could result in unforeseen consequences, including to a defendant’s right to due process.
“We cannot lose sight of the rest of the constitution in an emotional rush that leverages the horrific circumstances facing many victims and to inadequately crafted changes to the fundamental principles of our self-governance,” he said.
Defense attorney Jaye Rancourt went a step further, opposing a constitutional amendment altogether. She said the term “victim” implies that a crime has occurred, but that is not a pretrial determination. She said the amendment comes into direct conflict with one of the founding principles of the criminal justice system: that a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty.”
The proposed constitutional amendment contains many of the same guarantees as the Victim Bill of Rights, including the right to be notified of all legal proceedings; to receive reasonable protection from the accused; to timely restitution; and to be notified of any parole, release or escape of the convicted. However, it applies only to victims of felony-level crimes, whereas Marsy’s Law would have a broader reach.
Jessica Paradis, a Somersworth city councilor and survivor of child sexual abuse, said it’s important that all victims know that they are seen and heard regardless of whether their voices change the outcome of a case.
“As a survivor, I know what it is to feel invisible, and to feel like you don’t matter,” Paradis said. “None of us ever choose to be a victim, and you never expect that it will happen to you. But life is unfair, and all too often people find themselves affected by crime, and it changes their whole lives.”
(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)