Will Oklahoma voters amend victims’ rights in the state constitution? A national campaign hopes so.

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State Question 794, known as Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma, will be on the ballot in November. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier
A nationwide campaign that has spent millions of dollars promoting initiatives for victims’ rights is aiming to put down roots in Oklahoma as it pours thousands of dollars into the state to promote the proposal before November’s ballot.

State Question 794, known as Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma, is a proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee victims a broad range of rights, including the right to participate in parole hearings and be informed of hearing dates.

Supporters say the measure would empower crime victims, help them navigate the criminal justice system and ensure they are given the same rights as the accused. However, opponents argue Marsy’s Law is unnecessary and could create an unfair environment for the accused.

At the same time, some states that passed the initiative have faced unintended consequences.

Kim Moyer, state director of Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma, said she doesn’t believe the state would face similar issues.

“What we need voters to know about Marsy’s Law is crime victims deserve the consideration and respect we’re asking for in this measure,” Moyer said.

Marsy’s Law in Oklahoma
Marsy’s Law was named after Marsalee “Marsy” Ann Nicholas, a University of California Santa Barbara student who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

The national campaign is bankrolled by her brother, Henry T. Nicholas, a billionaire living in California. Nicholas made his fortune as co-founder of Broadcom Corp.

A week after his sister was murdered, Marsy’s mother “walked into a grocery store after visiting her daughter’s grave and was confronted by the accused murderer. She had no idea that he had been released on bail,” according to the Marsy’s Law website.

So far Nicholas has poured more than $300,000 into Marsy’s Law For Oklahoma SQ 794, a political action committee established mid-last year, according to Oklahoma Ethics Committee records.

The PAC has spent thousands on advertising, events and consulting services — almost entirely funded through Nicholas’ contributions — to promote the measure, records show.

A request to interview Nichols was unanswered.

Oklahoma already has language in its constitution addressing victims rights. Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 1996, the Oklahoma Victims Rights Amendment, that essentially provides a victims bill of rights.

The initiative ensures a crime victim’s right to know the status of prosecutions and investigations, the right to know the location of their accused attackers through arrest and serving of a sentence, and the right to be heard at probation or parole hearings.

Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma would amend that measure. The proposal would modify rights as follows:

  • expand the court proceedings at which victims have the right to be heard
  • add a right to reasonable protection
  • add a right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay
  • add a right to talk with the prosecutor
  • allow victims to refuse interview requests from the defendant without a subpoena

The measure would remove current language that guarantees a victim’s right to know where the defendant is in every stage of prosecution, but would require victims be informed if their attacker escaped or was released from custody.

The proposed measure has gained the endorsements of the Oklahoma Fraternal Order of Police, the state’s Association of Chiefs of Police and several sheriffs, according to the Marsy’s Law in Oklahoma website. 

Kevin Buchanan, president of the District Attorneys Council, said the agency is in support of the measure. He said he doesn’t believe Marsy’s Law would carry a financial burden or significantly impact how district attorney’s offices operate.

Buchanan said some of the language included in Marsy’s Law is already in state statutes, but not in the state’s constitution. State Question 794 would elevate existing statutes and give new rights to crime victims, he said.

A national campaign

Oklahoma isn’t the only state looking at adopting Marsy’s Law. Ten other states are considering the measure, according to the Marsy’s Law national website. California, Illinois, South Dakota, North Dakota and Ohio have passed the law. Nevada and Kentucky will vote on the initiative this year.

Nicholas contributed millions to PACs in states that voted to pass their own versions of Marsy’s Law.

In California, the first state to pass the measure, Nicholas gave more than $4.8 million in loans and in-kind contributions to the PAC Justice For Victims: Yes on Prop. 9, state campaign finance records show. Voters passed the California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 in that year’s general election.

And in Illinois, Nicholas gave more than $3.4 million to the state’s Marsy’s Law PAC in 2014, records show.

However, the measure has caused unintended consequences and faced backlash from law makers, victims’ advocates and criminal defense attorneys in some states that passed it.

Montana voters passed Marsy’s Law in 2016, but the state’s supreme court ruled in November 2017 the initiative was unconstitutional because it violated the Montana constitution’s “separate-vote rule.”

South Dakota passed the measure in 2016 and is the first state that is considering repealing it. Lawmakers there say the law has hindered investigations and brought high costs to counties.

Moyer said each state tailors Marsy’s Law to meet its needs.

“When we talk about implementation, it’s unfortunate they’re having to wrestle with all these issues in other states, but it’s a good learning opportunity for us,”  Moyer said. “There’s a lot to be learned about what works best with other states.”

Concerns

Opponents of the Mary’s Law say the initiative is unnecessary and could be unfair to the accused.

The ACLU of Oklahoma told KFOR last year it does not support the measure.

“Oklahoma already has several laws that protect the rights of victims during and after criminal trials. We are not aware of any reason why these current protections are inadequate and urge legislators to only amend the Oklahoma constitution in extraordinary circumstances,” said Ryan Kiesel, ACLU-Oklahoma’s executive director, in the statement.

“It is also important to remember, that in every criminal trial the defendant is presumed innocent. This presumption is a bedrock value of the American criminal justice system, and we must be very careful that any effort, however well intentioned, does not unlawfully prejudice a defendant’s right to a fair trial or any post-conviction relief.”

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office Victim Services Unit oversees the state’s victim assistance academy and victim notification system (VINE).

Agency spokeswoman Terri Watkins said the AG’s office does not yet know how it would have to modify its services if the initiative passes.

“We continue to study and wait until after November,” Watkins said. “At the request of Marsy’s Law campaign, we are waiting until a decision is made by the voters.”

Measure would ’empower’ victims

Karla Docter, senior officer of sexual violence prevention and response at YWCA-Oklahoma City, said Marsy’s Law would help victims understand their rights.

She said the measure wouldn’t take away rights from the accused, but instead even the playing field for victims.

“It can be difficult for them (victims) to use their voice,” Docter said. “So Marsy’s Law would be an opportunity and kind of a validation for them to know that we care what their voice is and empower them.”

To stay safe, victims also need to be notified of the custody status of their accused attackers, Docter said, and the right to have proceedings free from reasonable delay will help victims of crime move on with their lives.

“So often what we see on the defense side is its postponed and postponed and postponed,” she said. “Sometimes we’re representing a victim at court two, three, four years after the initial assault.”

Read next: 

Task force discusses why rape kits weren’t tested, officers’ response to cases in future

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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