KTVQ: Billings Crime Victims Rally Behind Marsy’s Law, Opponents Warn of Hidden Complications

A constitutional initiative that will appear on the Montana ballots hits home for one Laurel woman, whose son was the victim of a brutal assault on the Billings Rims last spring.

“My son was in an assault,” said Kristen Dawes, the victim’s mother. “He was the victim of an unprovoked assault in which he thought he was going to die. Throughout this whole process, I’ve really felt like I didn’t have a voice.”

Since the arrest of the two men who allegedly assaulted her son Zach, Dawes said she has felt helpless.

“The offender has priority over the victim, because every priority is made to call the offender, their parent, attorney, all that,” said Dawes. “Then they turn around, and if there’s no time, oh shoot. I’m not saying they’re doing it intentionally, but legally, who has to be notified.”

That’s why Dawes is going door-to-door to support Marsy’s Law, Constitutional Initiative 116 on the ballot, which aims to expand rights afforded to victims of crime.

Marsy’s Law is named after a California woman was stalked and murdered by her boyfriend in 1983.

Henry Nicholas, Marsy’s brother, is the sole financier of the Montana initiative. Nicholas is funding campaigns for Marsy’s Law in several states.

While a victim’s advocate does work to keep victims and their families informed about the case, Montana courts are not required under law to provide notice about court hearings or when a defendant has been released.

In addition to providing notice of all court appearances to the victim, Marsy’s Law would also afford representation to all victims and would require the judge to consider the safety and well-being of victims at a defendant’s probation and bond hearings.

“It’s only right that victims of crime get the same type of rights—constitutional rights—that we already give to persons accused or convicted of crime,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana). “I support Marsy’s Law because we need to empower crime victims and give them the rights they deserve.”

Rep. Jessica Karjala (D-Billings) considers herself a victim. Her best friend, Jill Baxter, was murdered by her spouse.

“[Marsy’s Law] sounds great, me having been a victim of domestic violence, having had to testify in a domestic murder case, of course I did want to hear about all future proceedings,” said Karjala. “It’s still hard to talk about because I really loved her and to lose her in such a horrible way was traumatizing.”

But Karjala does not support Marsy’s Law.

She said the component that allows a victim to decline speaking to the defense attorney about the case is unconstitutional, and added that the broad definition of “victim,” to include friends and family, would be costly.

“It would allow all of these people representation, it would clog up our justice system,” said Karjala. “Because Montana’s not likely able to afford an entirely separate department, it will set up a system of winners and losers and that’s just something I can’t get behind.”

ACLU Montana Director Caitlin Borgmann agrees with Karjala, arguing Marsy’s Law is potentially dangerous if passed as-is.

Borgmann said the law would increase prison populations, threaten due process, and burden Montana’s pocketbook.

“It’s presented as one big package that hasn’t been tailored for Montana,” said Borgmann. “It would be very costly overall.”

It’s hard to know exactly how much Marsy’s Law could cost the state, considering the fact that it’s a constitutional initiative so no fiscal note has been created.

The initiative would also not need support from the legislature to be passed and would be made effective immediately if passed Nov. 8.

But Dawes said her son and other victims are worth every penny.

“That’s kind of my mission, to make things better for other victims, and I hate to even acknowledge there will be other victims in the future, but we know there will be,” said Dawes.