- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - More than 20 years ago, North Carolina voters first enshrined the rights of crime victims in the state Constitution to talk with prosecutors, speak in court when their assailants are sentenced and learn when they’re released from prison.

Now invigorated by a national movement funded by a former California tech company executive, North Carolina lawmakers are pushing for a statewide referendum in May 2018 to rewrite and expand those rights. They say the proposal would ensure that the rights of crime victims have the same weight as those of defendants while at the same time.

“The victims and the surviving families are thrown into the criminal justice system really against their will,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and amendment sponsor, before it passed the House recently. “They didn’t ask to be there and this constitutional amendment is designed to strength the protections that we currently have, and to make sure that we can actually ensure their enforcement.”

In the proposed amendment, a victim also would have the right to be at plea hearings, parole hearings and any proceeding in which the victim’s rights are affected. And should a victim feel a district attorney hasn’t kept them properly abreast of a defendant’s court case or has taken too long prosecuting them, victims could go to court to seek resolution.

“The process includes a way for the court system to become aware of that before it gets too far down the road,” said Frances Battle of the nonprofit North Carolina Victim Assistance Network. Such a hearing, however, could prove uncomfortable for elected district attorneys, who rely on good relationships with victims and their families to aid in convictions.

The current constitutional language, approved by voters in 1996, also should be changed because it gives control to lawmakers on how the rights are implemented, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr said: “It’s subject to the whims every session of legislative changes.”

Some district attorneys and legislators are concerned the new proposed requirements would cost money and would apply to additional types of crimes. It also could create adversarial relations between local prosecutors with dissatisfied victims.

“We work very closely with victims and the families of victims as prosecutors,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said. “How do we meet that amendment when we are already an overburdened and underfunded system?”

Gail Gitcho, spokeswoman for a national group working to pass crime victims’ amendments in North Carolina and several other states, downplayed the costs of carrying out the proposed amendment.

“Any (extra) resources would be nominal,” Gitcho said. “Crime victims in North Carolina are certainly worth more than nominal resources.”

Her view appears to be align with most House members, who approved the referendum last month 98-17 - well above the three-fifths majority necessary for proposed amendments. The measure now sits in a Senate committee awaiting action, its future likely to be settled in Republican bargaining over several proposed amendments before the General Assembly adjourns this summer.

Gitcho’s group, called “Marsy’s Law for All,” was founded by Henry Nicholas, the founder of Broadcom Corp., and named for his sister, who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. Nicholas’ family was outraged that the suspect had been released on bail before trial, according to the group’s website.

Nicholas initially backed a California constitutional amendment in 2008. Marsy’s Law for All also has successfully passed amendments in four other states - Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. The group has hired several lobbyists for the North Carolina effort.

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