By Robert F. Orr
For the first time in 20 years, North Carolina has taken an important step to strengthen victims’ rights on behalf of crime victims and their families. A bipartisan victims’ rights bill, also known as Marsy’s Law, was introduced in the state Legislature to begin the process of amending our state constitution on behalf of victims of crime.
I have spent my career in North Carolina’s legal community – as an adjunct professor, a lawyer for over 40 years – and on the other side as a judge for 18 years. It’s fair to say I have seen a lot, both from the court’s perspective as well as representing victims of crime. There is nothing more powerful and humbling than being part of the justice system and helping a victim or his or her family through the complex process.
Many of us are fortunate enough not to have suffered first-hand as a victim of crime, and therefore do not fully appreciate the scope and complexity of the court system, the fear and frustration often involved in the process and the value of victims’ rights. But for our friends and neighbors in North Carolina who have been victimized, there is no issue more important facing our state.
And yet currently in North Carolina victims have limited rights in our state constitution. Though there is some language for victims included, it does not go far enough and is not consistently applied from county to county and regionally. In a state like North Carolina with large and diverse counties, it often means victims’ rights aren’t fully enforced depending on where you live. We have a need – and arguably a moral duty – to adopt language with specific, uniform and enforceable rights that are applied equally regardless of county or region.
Adding stronger language in the constitution will mean that victims receive the same rights that are already given to the accused and convicted, merely granting equal footing to victims in the eyes of North Carolina law. It seems like common sense that crime victims – at a minimum – have the same rights as those who are accused and convicted, but that is not the case.
Marsy’s Law for All is a national campaign to strengthen victims’ rights in states like North Carolina that do not have protective language in the constitution. The law is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Without any notification, her family encountered her accused murderer in public shortly after her death, having no idea he had been released on bond. Her family made it their mission to make sure this type of situation would not happen to other families, and founded Marsy’s Law, which helped pass groundbreaking victims’ rights protections in California in 2008 followed by Illinois, Nevada, the Dakotas and Montana.
The campaign is active in nine additional states, including North Carolina, around the country seeking to amend state constitutions that don’t currently offer equal protections to victims of crime.
Marsy’s Law does not negatively impact the rights of the accused or convicted. It simply elevates victims to the same level. Establishing “co-equal” rights in the state constitution is the goal of the North Carolina effort.
Amending the state constitution is not something to be taken lightly, which is why it is appropriately hard to do and doesn’t happen often. The two-step process first has to pass the state Legislature by a 3/5 vote in both chambers to be sent to all voters during a statewide election. Marsy’s Law is a unique issue that does not hit a partisan tone, and is supported by elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum.
The good news is that most DA offices, county clerks and judges already do many of the things proposed in Marsy’s Law including victim participation in the court process, allowing victim input prior to plea agreements and, most importantly, notifying victims and their families regarding court dates and changes in custody of the accused. But what makes this amendment critical is the guarantee by law that all victims receive these steps, ensuring dignity and limiting the ongoing suffering they are already experiencing as victims of crime. It is the guarantee – by constitutional law – that these rights are delivered to victims.
Imagine the poignant image of a scale when considering the justice system – the goal is always to maintain a balance in those scales. Yet today, North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens, victims of crime, are not guaranteed such a constitutional balance because they are not on equal footing as the accused from the start. House Bill 551 cannot right the wrongs against these victims, but it can go a long way in making sure they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve while seeking justice.
Robert F. Orr is a former NC Supreme Court Justice.