Don’t Erase Defendants’ Rights – ForceChange

Target: Tom Wolf, Governor of Pennsylvania

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Goal: Don’t strip rights from defendants in court cases.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolf are due to enact a version of ‘Marsy’s Law,’ a misguided, if understandable attempt to guarantee victims’ rights in criminal cases.

Named for Marsy Nicholas, a young woman who was stalked and murdered by her boyfriend in California in 1983, the law proposes a ‘victim’s bill of rights.’ These laws are intended to increase victims’ legal rights, make them aware of those rights, and keep them abreast of developments in the court’s proceedings in whichever district they happen to take place.

Altogether, these would appear to be uncontroversial. However, the side of Marsy’s Law which its advocates do not publicize are that it is based on a fundamental logical fallacy, that defendants’ and victims’ rights serve the same purpose. The flaw in Marsy’s Law is that it sees defendants’ rights – to due process, constitutional rights, free counsel, and fair treatment – as an imposition on the rights of the victim. Furthermore, it would remove the ability of courts to summon victims for depositions, which would deprive defense counselors of key testimony and witness statements needed to ensure fair trials and just sentencing.

Instead, defendants are guaranteed their rights to ensure that they are not victimized by government and legal institutions. Decades of abuse of accused persons, particularly poor, working class, and minority defendants, have provided an extensive catalogue of justifications for safeguarding the rights of those accused of crimes while still enabling courts to deliver suitable punishments on those deemed guilty by juries.

Additionally, Pennsylvania state law already protects victims’ rights, with many of the changes proposed by Marsy’s Law being on the books since 1998. Passage of this law would therefore create a constitutional crisis with clashing laws that would also remove key protections for the accused. It would bind judges to sentence defendants without adequate evidence or testimony, massively increasing the risk to historically disadvantaged people, without making any meaningful changes to what victims’ are already guaranteed.


Dear Governor Wolf,

While your intentions may be nothing but good in supporting the addition of Marsy’s Law to Pennsylvania’s constitution, we urge you to veto it.

Although much work is needed to protect the rights of victims in criminal cases, the fundamental underpinning of criminal justice in the United States is that a defendant remain presumed innocent until proven guilty. Marsy’s Law would undermine this noble idea, exposing people from underprivileged communities and minority backgrounds to untold abuses while enacting sweeping changes to state law with unpredictable effects.

We ask that you work with your state’s legislature to consider the needs and rights of victims without depriving defendants of their rights by reexamining the extant Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act of 1998 and any shortcomings therein.

These risks are the reason for the Law’s prohibition in Montana and other states and at the root of opposition from the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union. Victims’ and defendants’ rights are two crucially different things, and you cannot justify protecting the first by harming the second.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Tom Wolf

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