She was a champion equestrian by the age of 10 and as a teenager earned money as a fashion model. But Marsalee “Marsy” Ann Nicholas was most passionate about helping others, and she planned to become a special education teacher.
A jealous ex-boyfriend changed everything.
Nearly 35 years later, the California college student’s murder is the force behind a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot in Georgia — 2,000 miles from where Marsy was shot and killed.
Within a week of the 21-year-old’s death, her accused killer was released on bail, though her family wasn’t informed. Her older brother, Henry Nicholas, pushed for legislation to support crime victims and their families, and “Marsy’s Law” was passed in California in 2008.
Since then, four other states have added Marsy’s Law to their constitutions and efforts are underway to pass the law in 11 more states, including Georgia.
Nicholas, a billionaire who founded the semiconductor company Broadcom Corp., has spent $8.3 million in Georgia alone to get the law passed. There’s been little voiced opposition to Amendment 4, and one of its key supporters says prosecutors and law enforcement agencies endorse Marsy’s Law. Still critics argue that a constitutional amendment isn’t needed in Georgia, where victims’ rights are already written into law.
“The question we have is why put something in the constitution if you’re complaining about aberrations in the law?” Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said. “You can fix those aberrations in the law as opposed to putting this type of experimental initiative in the constitution.”
Georgia’s Victims Bill of Rights became law in 1996 and is regarded as among the best in the country, according to Bert Poston, district attorney for the Conasauga Judicial Circuit. Poston, whose circuit includes Murray and Whitfield counties, chairs the state Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council and was involved in writing the proposed Marsy’s Law amendment for Georgia. The process of moving the bill through the Georgia Legislature took two years, Poston said, but was necessary.
“We had a lot of concerns about the language,” Poston said. “We definitely support victims’ rights. But we had concerns about unintended consequences.”
The amendment takes elements of the law already on the books and moves it into the Georgia Constitution, he said.
“The language is the same. So as a practical matter, not much changes,” Poston said. “Putting it in the constitution just emphasizes it and makes it clear how important victims’ rights are.”
The Marsy’s Law proposed amendment passed both state legislature chambers unanimously this year, and in May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill to implement it if voters approve.
If the amendment passes, it will establish a single procedure for when a victims’ rights are violated, Poston said. Currently, that process differs from circuit to circuit, he said. Under Marsy’s Law, if a victim feels as though their rights aren’t being respected, Poston said, he or she can file a motion and have a court hearing scheduled so the complaints can be heard.
“Time will tell how often that procedure will get used,” Poston said. “But it allows the victim that direct access to the court if they feel like their rights are being violated.”
In November 1983, Marsy, a University of California at Santa Barbara senior, was killed by a neighbor she had dated for three years. The shooting shocked the Malibu, Calif. community. Kerry Conley was charged with her murder, but within a week, he was out of jail, released on $100,000 bail. Just days after Marsy’s death, her mother and brother came face-to-face with Conley at a grocery store.
At the time, the court system had no obligation to inform Marsy’s family that the accused killer was free. Her brother vowed to change that, and in 2008, Marsy’s Law was added to the California constitution. Nicholas didn’t stop with just his home state and remains on a mission to add Marsy’s Law to more state constitutions.
“If any good can come of something this horrible – the loss of my sister and the losses of other families of crime victims – it is that these violent acts served as a catalyst for change,” Nicholas said in a statement on the Marsy’s Law website.
Actor Kelsey Grammar appears in a television ad supporting Marsy’s Law. Grammer says his father was shot and killed at 38 and his sister was later raped and murdered when she was 18. Grammer says his family wasn’t notified when his father’s killer got out of prison, and that is why he urges voters to approve the amendment.
Locally, a woman that survived an acid attack at the hands of her ex-boyfriend is also voicing her support in television ads for Marcy’s Law. When Christy Sims emerged from a coma in 2013, she had no idea the man who caused third-and fourth-degree burns on 20 percent of her body, was walking free.
Sims previously told The AJC prosecutors did not inform her when hearings in the case against him were held, nor would they be required to inform her when her ex-boyfriend is released.
Sims, a McDonough resident, has spoken publicly to say the amendment could prevent cases like hers from happening.
But for Dodd, the amendment is a “solution looking for a problem.”
“We do have due process available for people who are accused. The justice system is supposed to take care of this,” she said. “We continue to believe that this has no place in the constitution.”