Government

Victims' rights measure stalls: Lawmakers don't think Iowa needs a 'Marcy' constitutional amendment

Alan Ostergren

Muscatine County attorney
Alan Ostergren Muscatine County attorney
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DES MOINES — Proposals to write victims’ rights into the Iowa Constitution failed to move out of Iowa House and Senate subcommittees Wednesday, but backers remain hopeful they can muster support for the measures similar to language in 34 other state constitutions.

For more than an hour Wednesday morning, supporters and opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment went back-and-forth in hearings, first on Senate Study Bill 3040 and then House Joint Resolution 2003.

The proposals are dubbed Marsy’s Law for Marsy Nicholas, a California college student who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

It would put in the Constitution a broad set of victims’ rights requiring victim notification of steps in the legal process, the opportunity to be present at those proceedings and the right to be heard by the court.

According to an organization known as Marsy’s Law for Iowa LLC, more than 80 percent of Iowans favor the constitutional change when it is explained to them. And, lobbyist Sandy Conlin added, nearly two-thirds support one of the most controversial aspects of the amendment — a victim’s right to refuse to be deposed by a defense attorney.

Arguing against the amendment, ACLU-Iowa lobbyist Pete McRoberts said that in American jurisprudence, “a defendant has the right to confront the accuser even if that person turns out to be a ‘bona fide victim.’ ”

There is no victim, he said, until there is a conviction and it’s proven a crime has been committed.

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Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Chariton, wondered if the Iowa Constitution was the right place for the language.

“If we need to fix something, let’s fix it in state code,” he said.

There’s nothing in the amendment that isn’t in state law, Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, said.

“I don’t think you can polish this in any way that will be more palatable than Chapter 915,” the code section outlining victims’ rights, said Olson, a defense attorney who was a county attorney.

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, felt strongly about the need to put victim protections in the Constitution and is working with county attorneys to find language they could support.

In the end, the subcommittee members could not agree to move the amendments forward.

The situation was the same in the Senate where a subcommittee of Sens. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, Jeff Edler, R-State Center, and Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, couldn’t reach consensus to move the amendment to full committee.

Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren told the House subcommittee supported the amendment because it would “rebalance the conversation we’re having about criminal justice.” Iowa, he added, is an outlier by allowing depositions — pretrial interviews conducted by defense attorneys — before trials.

Defendants would retain the right to confront their accusers at trial, he said.

Criminal defense attorneys use depositions to “beat up victims ... to ask inappropriate questions,” said Utah law professor Paul Kasel, a Marsy’s Law lobbyist.

However, Jim Carney of the Iowa State Bar Association said he is unaware of any Iowa case where abuse of the victim was raised as a result of a deposition.

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“No one here that doesn’t believe in victims’ rights,” he said, adding the bar association supports strengthening victims’ rights, but opposes the constitutional amendment because the rights sought already exist in Iowa law.

Representatives of groups supporting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault also opposed the amendment.

“This won’t change the reality for victims,” Kerri True-Funk said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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