Politics & Government

N.C. supporters kick off $5 million campaign for a victims’ rights amendment

Court historian Danny Moody straightens the Chief Justice’s chair in the chambers of the Supreme Court of North Carolina
Court historian Danny Moody straightens the Chief Justice’s chair in the chambers of the Supreme Court of North Carolina 2007 News & Observer file photo

In what could be North Carolina’s most expensive single campaign of the fall, former Gov. Pat McCrory Monday helped kick off the effort to pass a constitutional amendment designed to ensure the rights of crime victims.

Organizers have pledged to spend $5 million to pass the amendment known as Marsy’s Law. Similar amendments are on the ballots in five other states.

The amendment would guarantee crime victims’ rights, including the right to “reasonable and timely” notice of criminal proceedings and to be present at any proceeding involving a defendant’s plea, sentencing, parole or release.

“Victims too often feel abandoned and we need to give them a voice,” McCrory told reporters in Charlotte.

A simultaneous news conference took place at Raleigh’s Crime Victims’ Memorial Garden. Speakers there included former Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

Critics question the need for the amendment as well as its potential cost.

“What’s most disturbing about it is it really crashes head-on with the presumption of innocence,” said Drew Findling, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. “The presumption of innocence is abandoned when you immediately take the position that there is a victim of a crime.”

Willoughby calls that a “red herring.”

“(In) most situations we know someone is a victim of a crime,” he said in an interview. “These people are victims and we should be providing them with services, irrespective of who is responsible for the crime.”

Mark Rabil, a Wake Forest University law professor and director of the school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, has called the amendments a “sea change in the adversary system as we know it.”

“Obviously everybody agrees victims should have rights,” he said. “But the way I see the goal of Marsy’s Law is so much more than that. . . . The bottom line is they’re giving victims and victims’ families constitutional party status that can override the constitutional rights of a defendant to a fair trial and the right of districts attorneys to pursue cases in ways they perceive to be fair.”

Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said she’s worried that the amendment, especially by including victims of felony property crimes, would stretch resources and slow the legal process.

But Matthew Hebb, state political director for the Marsy’s Law campaign, said the effort is about giving crime victims what they deserve.

“We’re not asking for special rights,” he said. “We’re just asking for co-equal rights for crime victims.”

Willoughby said the amendment also would allow victims to petition a judge for enforcement of their rights.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, called the amendment “a very bipartisan issue,” pointing to the numerous Democrats who voted to put the measure on the ballot.

But Gov. Roy Cooper and the N.C. Democratic Party are opposing the amendment along with five others on the ballot. A flier distributed by the party recently called Marsy’s Law an “unnecessary” measure that would have “unintended consequences.”

The law is named after Marsy Nicholas, a California college student killed by her boyfriend in 1983. The campaign is led by her brother, Henry Nicholas III, a billionaire tech entrepreneur who has spent millions to pass the laws across the country. He has said his ultimate goal is a victims amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

Nicholas was arrested in Las Vegas last month on suspicion of narcotics trafficking, according to the Los Angeles Times. The paper said police found heroin, cocaine, meth and ecstasy in his hotel suite.

Colin Campbell of the N.C. Insider contributed.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill