New Hampshire's Rape Shield Law To Be Tested In Mazzaglia Murder Appeal

Sep 21, 2016

The New Hampshire Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in the case of Seth Mazzaglia, a Dover man convicted of raping and killing 19-year-old UNH student Lizzi Marriott in 2012.

Mazzaglia is appealing his 2014 conviction, for which he received a life sentence without parole.

Here's what you need to know:

What’s at stake in Wednesday's arguments?

Well, today’s arguments will center on New Hampshire’s Rape Shield Law. This law is intended to protect rape victims from having their personal information revealed during criminal proceedings. This could include anything from the victim’s name to details of his or her sexual history. The law’s been around for decades, and every state has some version of it on the books. In the Marriott case today, the issue is whether the victim’s sexual past should be unsealed during the appeal process.

But Mazzaglia’s already been convicted. Why is this coming up now?

During trial, this information was protected under the state’s rape shield law but in January the state Supreme Court decided that this protection no longer applies during the appeal process. Many victim rights advocates, both locally and nationally, say that would be unprecedented.

The Supreme Court said the public had a right to court proceedings and that this public accountability outweighed any reason to seal victim information.

Defendant Seth Mazzaglia
Credit AP/FILE

Why is this information so important – what is the defense’s stance on this?

Mazzaglia’s lawyer is asking the court to reverse his murder conviction based on the fact that this specific information - details about the victim’s sexual history - which, again, was sealed during trial, was crucial to his defense.

During the trial the defense argued that Mazzaglia’s girlfriend at the time, Kat McDonough, was the one who killed Marriott during consensual rough sex between the three of them. Therefore, the defense claims the victim’s sexual past was essential information for the jury to hear.

Here's a timeline on the Lizzi Marriott investigation.

Mazzaglia’s lawyer also believes in order for his client to have a fair appeal process this information needs to be open to the public. His argument is that if the Supreme Court decides to keep this information sealed, the appeal process will be conducted without the public or media present and the justices’ opinion will also be sealed – meaning the public will never know why Mazzalgia’s appeal was rejected or granted.

Bob Marriott holds a picture of his daughter Lizzi Marriott during Mazzaglia's sentencing hearing in August 2014.
Credit AP/FILE

So the defense feels strongly about having this information made public but I’m assuming the victim’s family thinks otherwise?

Yes. Marriott’s parents have been very vocal on this issue – stressing that they have already suffered enough and do not need to have this very private information about their daughter made public.

Victim rights advocates across the country are also paying attention to the case– saying it will set a bad precedent for Rape Shield Laws nationally if the court releases this information. Advocates say if victims believe this private information is subject to public release, many will think twice about reporting sexual assaults.

Several state officials have also stepped in and asked that this information remain sealed: Governor Maggie Hassan, both the state’s U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives.

Should we expect a decision on this anytime soon?

Each side with have 15 minutes to argue their case this morning. But the state’s lawyers will share their time with a lawyer representing the victim’s family – something that’s rare in most cases. The justices will then issue a decision anywhere from a couple of weeks to months from now.

But if the justices decide to make this information public – there’s a petition asking the media to leave this information out of future reporting. More than 37,000 people have signed it.