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Crime Victims Will Get New Constitutional Rights in Ohio

The state joined a growing trend on Tuesday that critics say is unnecessary and could impede the criminal justice process.

victims rights
This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.

Ohio is the latest state to expand the rights of crime victims under a so-called Marsy's Law, adding new protections to the state constitution.

The measure passed with over 82 percent of the vote, despite opposition from several statewide legal groups who warned the proposed changes would impede the criminal justice process.

Aaron Marshall, a spokesman for Marsy's Law for Ohio, said support for the measure exceeded what the campaign's internal polling showed.

"Ohioans really responded to our message," he said. 

A bipartisan coalition of public officials, including the state's top lawyer, Attorney General Mike DeWine, argued that Ohio currently doesn't do enough to ensure that courts keep victims and their families informed about developments in a criminal case.  

Opponents were particularly concerned about one specific provision that gives victims the right to refuse "discovery requests by the accused." In other words, courts won't be able to force victims to turn over evidence or to be interviewed by a defendant's attorneys.

Ohio's three largest legal associations said the added protections will slow down court proceedings and pit victims' rights against a defendant's right to a speedy trial and the right to confront his or her accuser. What's more, critics said, the new measure won't actually improve how courts communicate with victims. Leading up to the vote, Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young said that although he supports victims' rights, he opposed this measure.

Most of the proposed changes were actually already law in Ohio; the new initiative merely enshrined them in the state constitution. But advocates said the elevated legal status was important because prosecutors and judges haven't been applying the law consistently across the state. 

The Ohio ballot measure is part of a national campaign bankrolled by California tech billionaire Henry Nicholas. Despite opposition from Young, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio State Bar Association, the initiative always seemed on track to pass. An August poll released by the Marsy's Law for Ohio campaign found that 71 percent of likely voters supported the victims' rights measure when first asked about it.  

Proponents have dubbed measures like the one in Ohio as Marsy’s Law in reference to Nicholas’ sister, who was stalked and murdered in 1983 by a former boyfriend. A week after the murder, Nicholas and his mother encountered her killer out on bail and shopping at the grocery store. They didn't know he was out of jail. Nicholas gave more than $8 million to the campaign in Ohio.

No one organized a formal opposition campaign or raised money against Marsy's Law. Even critics like Young predicted it will pass. 

The measure had support from a long list of state and local elected officials in both parties, including DeWine, who is a Republican, Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, a Democrat, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, also a Democrat. The state sheriffs association and at least 14 county prosecutors also endorsed the measure. 

Since 2008, voters in California, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have passed versions of Marsy’s Law. Similar measures will appear on the 2018 ballot in Nevada and Oklahoma. Some state legislatures have resisted lobbying for stronger legal protections of crime victims. Eventually, Nicholas has expressed interest in amending the U.S. Constitution with the same bill of rights for crime victims.

Despite its popularity at the ballot box, Marsy's Law has experienced a few setbacks. In the past two years, proponents failed to get Marsy's Law passed in Hawaii and Idaho. Last week in Montana, the state Supreme Court voided its version of the law, agreeing with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Montana Association of Counties that the measure should have appeared as multiple ballot questions since it changes eight sections of the state constitution.

This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.

This story has been updated.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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