On a sunny California day in 1983, a woman loading bags into her car trunk in a supermarket parking lot was suddenly confronted by a gunman who forced her into the car, tied her up and drove her away.
Minutes later, in another parking lot, he blocked another car’s attempted exit from a space and, with help from an accomplice, kidnapped one of the two women in it. He then drove both his victims to a remote canyon, where he and the accomplice and one other man repeatedly raped the women before stealing their purses and leaving them behind.
The gunman, Michael Vicks, was convicted of these and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison, thanks to laws that provide enhanced sentencing in cases involving guns.
Imagine, now, that you are one of those rape victims and encounter Vicks — who you believed was behind bars for good — in a random encounter in a store.
That sort of thing happened to another woman, Marcella Leach, whose daughter Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, was stalked and murdered by an ex-boyfriend, coincidentally also in 1983. Only a week after that killing, Leach entered a grocery store after visiting her daughter’s fresh grave and was stunned to be confronted by the accused killer, freed on bail without any notice to the victim’s family.
A desire to minimize those sorts of encounters was behind the 2008 Proposition 9, also called Marsy’s Law and the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act, sponsored primarily by Marsalee’s brother Henry, now an electronics multimillionaire.
It requires that victims and their relatives be notified of every bail or parole hearing involving people accused of harming them.
Also prior to this law, inmates found unsuitable for parole by the state Board of Parole Hearings had the right to a new hearing within five years if convicted of murder, or within two years in lesser crimes. That’s one reason the likes of Charles Manson and his followers have come up for parole consideration repeatedly in recent years.
Michael Vicks (no relation to the similarly named Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) was convicted long before Marsy’s Law passed, so it was somewhat reasonable to expect that after he was denied parole in 2009 because of the “horrific” nature of his crimes, he would get another hearing two years later. He did not, because of Marsy’s Law, and he sued.
Vicks claimed that to subject him to the provisions of Marsy’s Law violates the Constitution’s prohibition on ex post facto laws, those that apply to events that occurred before the law passed.
Now the state Supreme Court has ruled his claim utterly without merit. Marsy’s Law, wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is not ex post facto because it does not increase the punishment for his crime.
“In light of the circumstances of his kidnapping offenses,” said Cantil-Sakauye, “such as the movement of the victims, the sexual assaults and the use of a firearm, it appears … that he would be required to remain incarcerated even if he were found suitable for parole.”
So Marsy’s Law now applies not just for crime victims from late 2008 and beyond, but also for those whose lives were blighted many years earlier.
What’s more, the law ensures that Vicks’ victims will always know about it long in advance when he gets a parole hearing or there is any other legal proceeding in his case. They are also guaranteed the right to be heard at any parole hearing in his case.
As for more recent victims, they will always be informed of bail hearings, trials or sentencing hearings in their cases. Any parole and probation decisions also must take into account victims’ safety and preferences.
Which means there should be no more encounters like the one Marcella Leach endured. This is one law that appears to be working exactly as the voters intended when they passed it. And maybe even a little better than expected, now that the Vicks decision is in.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org