OKLAHOMA CITY — Lauren Layman and her family waited nearly three decades for the man who beat, raped and murdered her great-grandmother to be brought to justice.
The man charged with the crime ultimately died a week and a half before his trial started, but Layman said she’ll never forget the struggles she faced trying to get basic information about the case from authorities.
The 45-year-old Oklahoma City resident, who now serves as president of the Oklahoma Homicide Survivors Support Group, said the state’s criminal justice system is understaffed, but it also sometimes ignores the needs of crime victims.
“I will be the first to admit that a lot of times victims are scary,” she said. “They can be more demanding.”
She’s become an ardent supporter of State Question 794, better known as Marsy’s Law.
“With Marsy’s Law, (victims) would have a resource to hold the officials accountable, not be thrown out of their office because (they) don’t live in their counties,” she said.
Supporters say Marsy’s Law aims to give victims rights in the criminal justice system that are equal to the defendant. They want to enshrine those new protections into the state Constitution.
“We’re trying to smooth this out so that we can have a better system for crime victims so they understand their rights and can be better advocates for themselves,” said Kim Moyer, state director for Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma.
But critics contend there are questions about the measure’s constitutionality. They’re also deeply concerned that lawmakers and supporters haven’t revealed how the state’s already cash-strapped court system and Legislature will be able to afford such an expansive — and expensive — constitutionally mandated undertaking.
“We think that this is a misguided attempt to alter our criminal justice system,” said Allie Shinn, with the Oklahoma chapter of the America Civil Liberties Union. “The proponents of Marsy’s Law are really pushing that victims rights and defendants rights should be equal to one another. This fails to take into account that due process rights of defendants are rights against the state.”
For more than two decades, victim’s rights have been enshrined in the state’s Constitution. But, those protections don’t go far enough, Moyer said.
“We think it needs to be broader,” she said. “That’s why we’re expanding it. It needs to be broader to include people like family members and guardians.”
If voters approve Marsy’s Law at the ballot box in November, the criminal justice system would be required to provide victims a ride to court if needed. Victims would get to weigh in about a defendant’s release, plea, sentencing, parole or the disposition of a case. Victims could refuse a request for an interview, deposition or discovery made by the accused without a subpoena. They should expect to experience proceedings free from unreasonable delay and can obtain their own attorneys to intervene on their behalf.
Shinn said there are more effective ways to protect crime victims that do not “trample upon” the rights of the accused and erode one of the most basic constitutional liberties — the right to due process.
Still, a handful of states already have Marsy’s Law in place.
California billionaire businessman Henry Nicholas started the movement after an ex-boyfriend killed his sister in 1983. Nicholas encountered the alleged killer in a grocery store, unaware that he’d been released on bail.
Moyer said Oklahoma’s measure has the backing of 21 of the state’s 27 district attorneys, along with hundreds of crime victims. But state Ethics Commission campaign finance reports show no Oklahoman has contributed any money to the cause.
Campaign finance records show the sole donor is Nicholas, who has contributed $590,000 to the Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma campaign. Moyer said they don’t solicit donations, and nobody else has offered any funds.
But if voters approve the measure, the Legislature — and taxpayers — may have to invest millions annually to adequately implement the new law.
In states that have already approved Marsy’s Law, annual costs have ranged from nearly $550,000 in Idaho to $2 million in North Dakota, said Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma, which gathers and analyzes data to better understand the criminal justice system.
“I haven’t seen any sort of estimate for what it would be in Oklahoma, but as you might know, Oklahoma hasn’t exactly been swimming in cash for quite a while,” Gentzler said.
He said the state’s court system is already severely underfunded and currently facing a serious funding crisis. Marsy’s Law will add “significant cost” to that system with new staffing requirements, new tasks that must be completed and additional administrative work involving hundreds of thousands of cases statewide.
“Any extra cost is going to be difficult to fulfill for our justice system,” he said.
The Oklahoma District Attorneys Council did not comment.
The state Legislature, which decided to put the measure on the ballot, has not indicated how it will pay for it, he said.
“What we fear is that the Legislature would try to fund it through fines and fees on defendants, which is not going to work,” Gentzler said.
In addition, Marsy’s Law has already been found unconstitutional in Montana, he said. Justices were concerned that it interfered with defendants’ constitutional rights to bail, to face an accuser and to due process.
Victims and family members should have rights in the criminal justice system, but those shouldn’t overshadow or outweigh those of a defendant, said Katrina Conrad-Legler, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
The group opposes the state question because of concerns about its constitutionality and that it will “cost money that we as a state don’t have right now,” she said.
“We’re worried about the defendant’s right to bail and due process in general and his right to confront the accuser,” Conrad-Legler said.
If a victim’s family members intervene, it means legally entitled bail could be denied to a defendant, she said.
She said also the measure could also delay court proceedings if cases can’t proceed without a victim’s family member being present.
“I totally agree the state’s Constitution covers victims rights,” she said. “They just shouldn’t outweigh those of the defendants.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.