HELENA – Backers of a ballot measure to expand rights for crime victims and their families say they have enough signatures to put the Marsy's Law initiative before voters in November.
Montana is one several states where national victims' rights advocates hope to build momentum for expanding the measure into more states.
In 2008, voters in California were the first to pass the law. A similar measure went into effect in Illinois last year. And efforts are now also underway in Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The law is in honor of Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, a University of California, Santa Barbara, student who was stalked and killed in 1983 by a former boyfriend. The national effort is bankrolled by her brother, high tech billionaire Henry Nicholas.
Just a week after the college student was murdered, Henry Nicholas and his mother crossed paths with the suspect while in a grocery store. They were never informed that authorities had released the suspect on bail.
The law would amend the state constitution to require prosecutors to inform victims or their families of key developments in a case and accord them the right to be heard in proceedings.
"The criminal justice system can get confusing, and sometimes victims feel left out. And sometimes they are left out," said Derek VanLuchene, a former Montana law officer, whose 8-year-old brother Ryan was killed in 1987.
"Back then, there was no such thing as victims' rights. ... We were in the dark on what's going on," said VanLuchene, who was 17 at the time of his brother's disappearance and who later founded Ryan United, a victims' rights group based in Helena.
National organizers are targeting 18 states that they say have inadequate laws to protect victims and their families.
"Victims of crime do not have equal rights to those accused or convicted of crime," said Gail Gitcho, the spokeswoman for the national group, Marsy's Law for All. "Criminals have more rights than victims do, and that's unfair, not right and we're working to change it."
National organizers say many of the states targeted by the Marsy's Law campaign are smaller – and cost less to get measures on the ballot. They are also cheaper media markets in which to wage campaigns.
In Montana, organizers expressed confidence that they have the minimum number of signatures required – 48,349 collected across 40 legislative districts – to place the measure on the ballot, said Charles Denowh, who is leading the ballot drive in Montana.
He said many counties in Montana already do a good job in keeping victims and their families in the loop. Marsy's Law, he said, would require every county to extend rights and courtesies to victims of crime.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said laws already exist in Montana to protect victims of violent crime. He worries that expanding the law to misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses, as he said Marsy's Law would do, could further burden overstretched staffs.
"We do not have time and the staff for every single theft case to afford the rights that are set forth in Marsy's Law," he said. "We do not have the sufficient resources to implement the requirements of the law."