Dr. Henry T. Nicholas III, left, and his mother Marcella Leach lead the march with a photo of his sister Marsy Nicholas during the Orange County Victims’ Rights March and Rally, Friday, April 26, 2013, in Santa Ana, Calif. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of Broadcom Corp. and chief architect of Marsy’s Law. Marsy Nicholas was murdered in 1983 and Marsy’s Law is named in her honor.

A controversial nationwide campaign to expand victims’ rights has quietly reached Mississippi.

Wednesday morning, the House adopted a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bill of rights for victims in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

The proposal would give victims such rights as refusing defendants’ requests during the discovery phase of trials and participating in all public proceedings among other provisions. The bill would also allow victims to ask courts to enforce their rights under the law. If passed, voters would be asked whether the amendment should be added to the state constitution. A previous constitutional amendment on victims’ rights passed in 1998.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, sponsored the measure that Marsy’s Law for All, a national victims’ rights group founded by eccentric California tech billionaire Henry Nicholas, is pushing in several states through model legislation.

“We can all agree that no rapist should have more rights than the victim. No murderer should be afforded more rights than the victim’s family,” the group’s website reads. “Marsy’s Law would ensure that victims have the same co-equal rights as the accused and convicted – nothing more, nothing less.”

“Marsy’s Law is not a partisan issue. Giving crime victims equal rights is a rare political issue that Republicans and Democrats are unified in supporting.”

Nicholas has spent millions of dollars to pass similar bills in eleven states over the past decade. He created the foundation Marsy’s Law for All after his sister, Marsalee, was killed in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend. Marsy’s family did not receive a notification when he was released on bond and ran into him at a grocery store.

In 2018, voters in six states, including Florida and Georgia, passed ballot measures similar to the one proposed in Mississippi.

Austin Barbour is the the group’s lobbyist in Jackson. He and proponents of Marsy’s Law say it will put victims’ rights on par with those of defendants in the criminal-justice system. The group aims to amend the U.S. constitution to include a victims’ bill of rights.

Mississippi created state victims’ rights statute in 1998 after a successful statewide ballot initiative. That law outlines how law enforcement agencies and prosecutors notify victims, as well as prosecuting attorneys’ obligations to confer with victims during the criminal prosecution process.

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn adjourns the first day of the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Tuesday, January 8, 2019.

The proposed constitutional amendment, H.C. 47, would allow victims to opt in to the rights, rather than making the rights compulsory for all, according to supporters of Marsy’s Law.

Some legal experts have voiced concern over the measure, saying it could infringe on a defendant’s constitutional due-process rights.

Requiring prosecutors to contact victims in cases with multiple victims could result in delays and potentially lengthy pretrial detention times for defendants, said Drew Findling, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

State public defender Andre de Gruy said Marsy’s Law would not add much to existing protections for victims in Mississippi.

John Herzog of the state prosecutors association did not say whether the group supported the amendment: “Our prosecutors are dedicated to working with victims of crimes in our districts and ensuring that the Constitutional rights afforded to them through the Crime Bill of Rights are upheld and protected,” Herzog wrote in an email to Mississippi Today.

But the bill could still face opposition from law-enforcement groups. Ken Winter of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police said the amendment would be a cumbersome burden to law-enforcement agencies tasked with implementing it.

In some states, the law has drawn legal challenges and, in some instances, been rolled back over. Barbour discounted those setbacks as mere procedural concerns involved in amending a state constitution. Recently, Kentucky’s state supreme court heard arguments in a lawsuit claiming that the bill’s language is too vague.

If the bill passes the Legislature, Mississippi could see an influx of cash between now and March 10, 2020, the date on which Mississippians could vote on the amendment on their ballots.

“This isn’t about victims, it is all about money,” said Winter, the head of the police chiefs’ group.

In 2018, Nicholas spent $72 million to pass Marsy’s Law in six other states, including Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Nicholas, who co-founded the semiconductor company Broadcom Corp., has previously faced drug charges and a lawsuit in which a former girlfriend alleged emotional and physical abuse.

Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Marsy’s Law for All contacted her group in early 2018, but she has not spoken to them since. 

“We want to make sure that we have looked at it based on what is already in our U.S. constitution and what are we implementing,” Mahoney said. “Is it enhancing what’s already there? Are we just bringing it to a level of what is currently in settled statute?”

Gunn’s office declined to comment for this story, citing an upcoming major deadline on Feb. 14 for floor action on general bills.

A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature before being placed on a ballot, where it would take only a simple majority of voters to pass it.

Gunn’s bill is the only piece of legislation passed out of the House’s Constitution Committee this session.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.