Coordinated Community Response: Marsy’s Law, Strengthening Crime Victims’ Rights

by Colleen C. Nordin, Door County District Attorney

In the April 2020 election, Wisconsin voters joined voters in many states across the country in strengthening and enforcing victims’ rights within the criminal-justice system. In Wisconsin, this took the form of approving an amendment to Article I, Section 9m of the Wisconsin Constitution, which provides additional rights for the victims of crimes and is also known as Marsy’s Law. 

This law is named after Marsalee (Marsy) Ann Nicholas, a University of California-Santa Barbara student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Shortly after her murder, while her family members were on their way home from Marsy’s funeral, they stopped at a grocery store and were confronted by the accused murderer, who, unbeknownst to them, had been released on bail just days after the murder while he was awaiting trial.  

Marsy’s family was unaware the killer had been released because at that time, the criminal-justice system was not under any obligation to keep crime victims informed about the status of their case, including the whereabouts of the offender. This experience further traumatized a family that was already overwhelmed with grief, but it served as the catalyst for Marsy’s family to initiate a movement intended to “even the playing field” and to ensure that crime victims are treated fairly in the criminal-justice system.  

The amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution became effective May 4, 2020, and it guarantees that the victim of a crime has the rights, among others, to privacy; to a timely disposition of the case, without unreasonable delay, to attend, upon request, all proceedings involving the case; to be heard, upon request, at court proceedings; to confer with the prosecution; and to full restitution and compensation as provided by law.

Although the Marsy’s Law movement has received broad support from law-enforcement agencies and victim advocates, the movement has also drawn criticism. Some opponents argued that the language of the amendment is overly broad and unworkable. Others argued that instead of creating more balance in the criminal-justice system, the amendment prioritizes victims’ rights over the constitutional protections afforded to defendants, who, under both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions, are considered innocent until proven guilty.

Supporters point out that the language of the amendment explicitly states that it is “not intended and may not be interpreted to supersede a defendant’s federal constitutional rights” [Art. I, § 9m(6)].

Marsy’s Law may be a novel concept to many, but here in Wisconsin, protecting the rights of crime victims is not new. In 1979, the Basic Bill of Rights for Victims and Witnesses was passed into law, and it has been updated and improved upon over time. In 1993, Wisconsin adopted one of the first victims’ rights constitutional amendments in the country.   

Because of Wisconsin’s strong history of supporting the victims of crimes, many of the rights included in Marsy’s Law were being afforded to victims long before the ratification of the recent amendment. Law-enforcement agencies, prosecutors, victim advocates and the judiciary continue to work to support victims, ensure their fair treatment and give them a voice in the criminal-justice process.  

This article is brought to you in part by the Door County Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Teams and the Door County Elder and Adult-at-Risk Interdisciplinary Team.