Inside 'Marsy's Law:' California Billionaire Behind N.H. Debate Over Victims' Rights

Feb 21, 2018

A proposal to amend the state constitution is stirring debate among lawmakers and legal experts in New Hampshire.

The so-called Marsy’s Law amendment would insert specific rights for crime victims into the state constitution.

As NHPR’s Jason Moon reports, a well-financed campaign has brought the same debate to more than a dozen other states at the same time.

A few weeks ago, a crowd of people dressed in purple t-shirts and holding purple signs gathered in the lobby of the State House to show their support for Marsy’s Law.

“Marsy’s Law! Marsy’s Law! Marsy’s Law!”

The amendment, which would enshrine rights for crime victims into the state constitution, is working its way through the legislature and could be in front of voters for final approval by this November.

That is the story of Marsy’s Law in Georgia, and that crowd was gathered at the State House in Atlanta.

But it’s also the story of Marsy’s Law in New Hampshire, right down to the purple signage and State House rallies. Just last week Governor Chris Sununu made a Marsy’s Law pitch in his State of the State address.

“Victims of crime deserve equal constitutional rights. The same rights as defendants - no more, no less," Sununu said from the podium. "That’s why Marsy’s Law is so important.”

Look around the country and you’ll see a remarkably similar story playing out in thirteen states right now. Like more than a dozen alternate Marsy’s Law universes.

Behind all of them is one well-funded, sophisticated campaign called Marsy’s Law for All. The group’s goal is to get crime victims’ rights into every state’s constitution and ultimately the federal constitution.

In each state, the Marsy’s Law campaign uses largely the same playbook: hire top lobbyists, secure big political endorsements, and a run a polished ad campaign.

The campaign has its origins in the story of Marsy Nicholas, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in California in 1983.

Just a week after the murder, the accused killer was out on bail when Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas, and mother, Marcella Leach, ran into him.

They told the story to local TV station in LA in 2009.

“After the funeral, my husband wanted me to get a loaf of bread in the market," said Leach, "and I went in and he was coming out of the market. But we weren’t notified or anything.

"Standing there, staring down my mother," adds Nicholas.

The suspect was later convicted and died in prison while serving his sentence.

That might have been where the story ends except that years later, Nicholas founded a company called Broadcom and became a billionaire.

In 2008, Nicholas poured millions of dollars into a campaign for a California state constitutional amendment designed to make sure that moment outside the grocery store wouldn’t happen to others. He called the initiative Marsy’s Law after his sister. Among the privileges it grants to crime victims is the right to be notified of any change in the custody of the offender.

It was adopted in California with 54 percent of the vote.

Since then, Nicholas has marched to victory in five other states, convincing lawmakers and voters to rewrite their constitution.

Along the way he has spent more than $20 million.

The nationwide push for Marsy's Law is itself part of a broader movement, says Colin Miller, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He says in recent decades, the victims rights movement has led to things like victim impact statements and sex-offender registries.

"This started in the '70s a bit, then it got traction in the '80s” with the campaign by the mother of Sharon Tate, said Miller. Tate had been killed by members of the so-called Manson Family and Tate's mother "made the big push in California for victim impact statements and that really got the ball rolling."

But the idea that a California billionaire could lead the charge to amend the New Hampshire Constitution rubs some local lawmakers the wrong way.

“It bothers me a lot,” says Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham. She calls the whole thing a marketing effort that has little to do with New Hampshire.

“It is another example of how large concentrations of money can affect the outcome of an election or something like this that has very little to do with the merits,” says Smith.

It’s hard to say exactly how much money will be spent on Marsy’s Law in New Hampshire. But the group says it’s willing to spend into the millions.

Amanda Grady Sexton is the state director for the Marsy’s Law campaign in New Hampshire. She has also worked with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence since 2001. She says getting constitutional rights for crime victims has long been a goal for her organization.

“We recruited Marsy’s Law to New Hampshire to help us to achieve that goal," says Sexton. "And without those resources, we don’t believe it would be possible. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The campaign Sexton recruited to New Hampshire is a well-oiled machine that has found success in other states, like South Dakota, with star-studded TV ad campaigns.

“They run $2 million of Kelsey Grammer in a TV ad and we get it,” chuckled South Dakota Speaker of the House Mark Mickelson. After the amendment was passed in his state via a ballot initiative, Mickelson says county courts started complaining about an increase in costs. Now he and the Marsy’s Law campaign in South Dakota are negotiating another amendment to be introduced to make changes.

His advice to lawmakers here: “just make sure that what you’re putting into the constitution is something that you can live with for a long time.”

Credit Ellen Grimm for NHPR

As for the future of the amendment in New Hampshire, it faces a steep climb ahead. To become part of the constitution it needs three-fifths approval of the House and Senate, as well as two-thirds approval from voters.

It’s beginning that journey with a lot of political momentum. In addition to Sununu, the amendment has the backing of legislative leaders in both parties: 22 out of 24 state senators are listed as co-sponsors on the bill.

But at least one of those co-sponsors has already developed misgivings.

Senator Bob Giuda, R-Warren, stood just a few feet from Sununu when he launched the Marsy’s Law campaign in New Hampshire. But at the bill’s first public hearing, he testified against it.

“This is pretty much boilerplate language that’s gone around the entire country," said Giuda in an interview. "That doesn’t work for here. It doesn’t work for me. I’m very wary of boilerplate language.”

Now Giuda says he is gathering support among fellow senators to make significant changes to the amendment.

Giuda and others like the New Hampshire ACLU have raised concerns that the rights for victims will undermine those of the accused, particularly when those rights apply pre-conviction.

It’s unclear whether Marsy’s Law advocates in New Hampshire will be willing to compromise on the amendment’s language. But it does seem a likely scenario – after all, that is what’s happened in some of those alternate universes.