ORR: North Carolinas duty to protect victims

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Supporters of a billto strengthen victims' rights hold up signsat the Legislative Building in Raleigh

The North State Journal editorial (“Raise the age now, but pause on Marsy’s law,” May 3) regarding House Bill 551, also known as Marsy’s Law, unfortunately simply got it wrong in a variety of ways. As one of many individuals who strongly support Marsy’s Law, I find it necessary to set the record straight for the benefit of your readers and all those victims of crime across North Carolina who are advocating for passage of this legislation.I have spent my career on the front lines of the legal community in North Carolina as a lawyer for over 40 years, including 18 of those years as a judge on our Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. I have also worked as a practicing lawyer, represented defendants and, as an acting district attorney, also prosecuted defendants. I know full well the challenges out there and the terrible consequences that victims of crime face.While your editorial acknowledges that the intentions of this proposed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution are “good and pure,” you indicate that this amendment does little more than “copy” existing provisions. Nothing could be further from the truth. A reading of the existing article in our constitution on victims’ rights demonstrates that those rights are only executed through whatever laws the General Assembly might pass or amend and can be changed by legislative process. The proposed amendment to our state constitution set forth in H.B. 551 replaces this legislative “guarantee” to one actually enshrined in our constitution. If passed, Marsy’s Law would make sure that victims and their families have explicit constitutional rights not dependent on any given legislature to pass or amend or repeal laws impacting their rights.In addition, it is simply incorrect to say that H.B. 551 will “give victims the right to intervene in criminal cases.” This amendment does no such thing — it does not make victims parties to criminal trials. What it does do is provide a victim the right to assert his or her rights under this section — rights such as being notified of pending court action that could result in a defendant being released from prison and the right to be heard in court proceedings where important decisions are being made that could impact the victim.I find it truly remarkable that your editorial states that “if North Carolina’s criminal justice system does not treat victims fairly,” then “that is reason for study and deliberation.” To cavalierly treat men and women, children and adults who have been victimized by crime, many of which are of the most violent nature, “unfairly” is simply inconceivable. We have a civic responsibility to make sure, not just that victims and their families are treated fairly by the criminal justice system but to make sure that their voices and concerns are an integral part of the process. We also must affirm that those victims have rights under our constitution that are comparable to those rights guaranteed to criminal defendants.More than 30 states around the country already guarantee these rights to victims of crime as well as federal courts. It seems like common sense that North Carolina should do the same for its victims of crime and do it quickly.Your suggestion that the General Assembly in considering H.B. 551 providing for a constitutional amendment to strengthen the rights of victims and their families should “take a pause,” is without question the wrong approach. Every day in the criminal justice system all across our state, victims and their families struggle, not only with the consequences of the crimes committed against them, but with the complexities and inconsistencies of an overwhelming caseload in the criminal courts of our state. District attorneys, clerks of court, judges, and victim assistance personnel try mightily to help but the need for defined constitutional rights for those victimized by acts of violence and other felonies cannot simply be pushed aside and “studied.”The General Assembly should move forward as quickly as possible to pass H.B. 551 and submit this proposed constitutional amendment protecting victims’ rights to the citizens of this state for adoption.Robert Orr is a retired associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.