NAMPA — Angie Leon thought she would have a chance to get away from her abusive, estranged husband while he was completing a court-ordered rider program for nine months in Cottonwood.
She was wrong.
On May 19, 2003, Abel Leon Ramirez, Angie Leon’s husband, shot and killed her.
Leon, who was three weeks shy of turning 22, thought she would be able to move away from the man she grew to fear. She wanted to attend Idaho State University to become a nurse or a pharmacist — she hadn’t decided which yet.
Sylvia Flores, Angie Leon’s mother, said her daughter was only notified after a hearing that Angie’s estranged husband was going to be released from jail within the hour. Within three weeks, he had found where Angie and their three children lived.
Sylvia Flores, a proponent for Marsy’s Law for Idaho, said if it were required for her daughter to be notified sooner, she thinks her daughter might still be alive today.
A notification system for victims is already in place. But State Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, – and other advocates for Marsy’s Law for Idaho – aims to pass a resolution during the 2018 legislative session that would update Idaho’s victims’ rights via constitutional amendment, giving victims “reasonable and timely” notification of a defendant’s hearing or release.
But not everyone agrees with how to go about those changes.
Kathy Griesmyer, policy director at the ACLU of Idaho, and other opponents such as Ian Thomson, vice president of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, say the proposed resolution would burden judges and prolong trials by expanding the definition of who a victim is and not adequately funding how to implement the changes in the courts.
“Without new funding, it’s a feel-good measure if Legislature doesn’t come up with the money,” Thomson said.
WHAT'S IN PLACE NOW
Victims’ rights are outlined by the 1994 Idaho Victims Rights amendment. Marsy’s Law for Idaho is the blueprint that’s being used to update that existing language.
“The language we have in the Constitution now was good language 20-plus years ago when it was adopted,” Lakey said. “But we need to update it to become current with standards that exist across the country and particularly in the federal system.”
During the 2017 legislative session, the Idaho Senate passed the joint resolution for Marsy’s Law for Idaho, 34-0, but it stalled before the Idaho House of Representatives, who, Lakey said, did not receive enough time and education on the measure.
Lakey is proposing a similar measure during the 2018 legislative session, where proponents are focused on educating House members for the upcoming session.
For the proposed resolution to become an amendment to the Idaho Constitution, it must first pass the Idaho Senate and the Idaho House of Representatives in a two-thirds vote. It would then be included on the November 2018 ballot for voters to decide its outcome, Lakey said.
Lakey said the constitutional amendment is important because, to him, victims are impacted most severely in the court system.
“They need to have the strength of the Constitution behind their right to be heard,” Lakey said.
Thomson said he agrees victims should be given rights. Instead of a constitutional amendment, though, he said laws should be written to provide more funding for victims’ advocacy programs. A constitutional amendment makes the law harder to change if it does not work the way it is intended to, he said.
ATTEMPTING TO BRING CHANGE TO OLD LEGISLATION
Carlie Foster, lobbyist for Marsy’s Law for Idaho, said there is no mechanism to enforce the rights victims currently have, but Marsy’s Law would give victims the ability to have standing to assert those rights.
Lakey, who started his career as a prosecuting attorney, said he has seen how these issues victims face “play out first hand.”
With the current model, it’s legal to give the victim only a few minutes’ notice for a hearing. The proposed resolution would require they be given “reasonable and timely” notice prior to a hearing; notification of escape, release or probation and notice of reading a pre-sentence report, Lakey said. For example, if the victim received only an hour’s notice about a hearing, the hearing could be continued to another day.
The resolution for Marsy’s Law for Idaho does not define what reasonable and timely notice is — something Lakey said will be up to the discretion of the courts to determine. But Lakey said that’s better than the current wording that states victims will simply be given prior notice.
Victims would also be assured the right to confer with their prosecutor, Lakey said. The wording used in the current legislation is “communicate,” which Lakey said is one-sided. Conferring implies there is some back-and-forth. While Lakey said many prosecutors already do this, he wants victims to be guaranteed this right. Ultimately though, he said, the prosecutors would make those decisions.
Lakey added that the new legislation would also give victims notice of hearings and opportunities to submit letters and speak at proceedings they aren’t currently afforded. Some of the new hearings they could speak at would include post-conviction, pardons, change in probation and parole discharge. For example, if a person who was found guilty of a crime were allowed probation, the victim could submit a letter or speak during the proceeding to talk about how that would impact him or her.
But Thomson, the public defender who opposes the legislation, said Marsy’s Law is “not trying to get equal rights, but greater rights for the victim.”
For instance, he said, it appears that if the new legislation is passed, a victim would be able to appear and be heard at appeals or post-convictions of the defendant, a situation not afforded to defendants.
Perhaps the most important proposed alteration to the current legislation is the victim’s ability to relay what’s happened.
“I’ve been in court and seen victims just shaking,” Lakey said. “They can’t communicate because they’re so close to the person that victimized them.”
If a victim does not feel comfortable speaking at hearings, Lakey said, the new measure would allow the prosecutor or another representative to speak on behalf of the victim.
Angie Leon’s three children and her mother, Sylvia Flores, were all witnesses to Angie Leon’s death. Two of her three children, 4 and 5 years old at the time, were set to testify against their father and were being counseled on the process, Flores said. Flores said the children all reacted to their mother’s death differently, with night terrors, constant crying, anger and counseling.
The only thing that saved the children from testifying was their father, Ramirez, who entered an Alford plea. An Alford plea means the suspect states they are innocent, but acknowledges there may be enough evidence to find the suspect guilty during a jury trial. As a result, the children did not have to testify, and the death penalty he may have faced turned into life in prison without parole.
If the measure succeeds, victims will still have to testify if called to be a witness, but Sylvia Flores or her grandchildren could choose to have others speak on their behalf or read letters during hearings about how they’ve been impacted. This is already allowed in some courts depending on the judge, Lakey said, but Marsy’s Law would assure that option.
Marsy’s Law would protect victims like her daughter, Flores said, but it would also protect Leon’s children, whom Flores has since adopted.
For victims who do not want to face the defendant, Flores said having someone else to speak before the court “would really help victims heal.”
“Everyone should be heard,” she said. “Not just the offender.”
THOSE IN OPPOSITION
Thomson said when the resolution was discussed last legislative session, he listened to victims talk about two main issues. One was that victims were disappointed with the outcome of the trial. The other concern victims had was how they were treated in the criminal justice system. Some felt they could not speak the way they wanted to, or that they were not given enough notice prior to a hearing, he said.
“I don’t think these complaints aren’t being addressed by what we already have,” Thomson said. “It’s just poor execution when given limited resources.”
Thomson believes the proposed resolution is a “solution running around looking for a problem.”
Thomson said he does not want the debate to be construed as “either you’re with us or against us.” He said he thinks victims should have rights and that their concerns should be addressed. However, he does not believe Marsy’s Law for Idaho will address those concerns.
Michael Bartlett, a criminal defense attorney, said that Marsy’s Law would give victims the ability to appear before any court hearing. Bartlett said, to his understanding, that could mean the victim could speak during hearings about what the alleged suspect has done, without that person having been found guilty.
Bartlett said the definition of a crime victim in the resolution would greatly expand the meaning of a victim.
Under the proposed resolution, a “’crime victim’ shall include any person or entity directly and proximately harmed by the commission.”
Bartlett said that could mean multiple people and agencies could claim to be a victim against one person. Bartlett explained that if someone gets in a fight and breaks someone’s leg, that person is unarguably the victim. By expanding the definition of a victim, the business the victim works for could potentially testify as a victim because they are not making as much money while their employee, the victim, is out on injury.
The proposed resolution also states victims will get “full and timely restitution from the person committing the offense for economic losses.”
Bartlett said that goes “beyond the scale of criminal law” because economic restitution is typically a civil matter. This would mesh civil court and criminal court into one, he said, which ultimately would create longer trials.
Griesmyer with the ACLU, who has the same concerns with the proposed changes for the definition of a crime victim, said the change also means a large corporation like Wal-Mart could speak before the court as a victim of an economic crime. Being a large corporation, Wal-Mart already has its own legal council, but Griesmyer wonders if Wal-Mart would be afforded the same resources of victims who cannot afford legal council. She said the issue then becomes diverting the resources to actual human victims who really need it.
Griesmyer said another problem with the proposed resolution is the pressure it would put on judges. The process of a criminal trial would be put on hold when victims or the defendant claim their constitutional rights are violated during the hearings because the judge would have to decide whose rights to protect over the other. This would be decided independently of the actual trial, she said, which diminishes the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Griesmyer added that if a judge rules with the victim’s rights, it could jeopardize the case because the defendant could, for example, challenge the validity of the sentence, which would create more problems for victims.
Lakey said the proposed resolution states it is not intended to supersede a defendant’s federal rights. He said the defendant’s rights — such as right to a speedy trial or right to face the accuser — would not be overlooked in favor of the rights of the victim.
“Amendments aren’t magic,” Thomson said. If Marsy’s Law for Idaho does pass, it will take program funding, judges and prosecutors to transform those changes, he said.
OPTIMISTIC FOR VICTIMS RIGHTS
Opponents of the change all mentioned that there is no fiscal note attached to the legislation. Bartlett said the side that favors Marsy’s Law for Idaho has not considered how significant the costs could be. Bartlett said it would require more victim witness coordinators, prosecutors and public defenders.
Lakey said cost should not be a concern when it comes to protecting victims. Lakey said a third party group has been asked to do a fiscal analysis of the resolution, but the findings have not been shared yet.
“Frankly, there’s going to be some cost, we don’t know what it’s going to be with additional notification,” Lakey said. “Maybe we’ll have more victims who say they understand now and want to speak to the court.
“For me, the initial cost is well worth it in protecting rights of victims. And making sure they have that same level of protection as the criminal defendant.”