ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Commissioners on Tuesday debated a proposed amendment to Maine’s Constitution to increase victims’ rights.
The board received a letter from First Lady Ann LePage asking for the board’s endorsement of the proposed amendment, Marsy’s Law.
The amendment is named for philanthropist Henry Nicholas’s sister, Marsalee Nicholas, a college student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.
A week after Marsy was murdered, Marsy’s mother, Marcella Leach, and the dead woman’s brother, Henry Nicholas, walked into a grocery store and discovered the accused murderer was free on bail.
Marsy’s Law would provide constitutional protections to crime victims, including the right to be informed when an accused perpetrator has been released from custody and to refuse an interview or other request by the accused perpetrator or his/her attorney.
In Maine, all eight district attorneys oppose the measure, said Hancock County Assistant District Attorney Heather Staples.
Staples spoke to the commissioners at a special meeting Tuesday for District Attorney Matt Foster, who had been called out of town.
Staples cited myriad issues with the proposed amendment.
Marsy’s Law is “essentially an unfunded mandate” in states that have already adopted the measure, Staples said.
“We’re going to essentially create more roadblocks for putting cases through the system,” Staples said.
Another issue is that the definition of “victim” in the proposed amendment is not clear, she said.
The commissioners were divided.
“Are you asking us not to support this?” asked Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown, who was a patrol deputy earlier in his career.
“I believe you have been asked to endorse a position, which would support Marsy’s Law, which is a constitutional amendment,” Staples replied.
“Why would I not want to support victims’ rights?” Brown asked. “I believe our victims are not supported enough. Sometimes, they’re left on the sidewalk. I’m not saying this happens all the time.”
Commissioner Bill Clark, who was a longtime sheriff, said he was not prepared to endorse the proposal as an individual or as a board member.
“The biggest issue to cause pause is that they want to get this in the [Maine] Constitution,” Clark said. “I am a little dismayed when I read the list of supporters. I have a lot of respect for their beliefs.”
Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane supports strengthening victims’ rights but does not agree with changing Maine’s Constitution to do so.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Kane said. “If you don’t support Marsy’s Law, you don’t support victims.”
“We can solve this problem by passing some laws and statutes to strengthen victims’ rights,” Kane said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to change the Constitution to do that. I don’t like tinkering with a document as strong as the Constitution. That document has stood for a long, long time.”
One supporter of the proposed amendment is Sagahadoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who sat on a workgroup of advocates and people who work with victims to look at Marsy’s Law and what other states had done to enact it.
“The result was an amended version of the bill — proposal — that I support,” Merry said. “What I like about it is that it has the input of those who work most closely with victims, and it’s not filled with empty promises.”
“While I believe that passage of Marsy’s Law will have an impact on both the office of the district attorney and police agencies, I believe it can be managed in a way that truly benefits victims,” Merry said. “While it’s symbolic that there be a reference to victims’ rights in the Maine Constitution, the practical laws in statute are what makes it work.”
James Cyr, spokesman for the Maine Senate president, said the bill remains tabled in committee.
“Not sure if we’ll see it again this session,” Cyr said.
Any amendments to Maine’s Constitution require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses and then it goes to the polls for a statewide referendum vote.