Marsalee Ann Nichols, a UC Santa Barbara undergrad, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. One week after her murder, the suspect, Kerry Michael Conley made bail and confronted Marsy’s mother while she was shopping in a grocery store. Their encounter was not a coincidence but was planned by Conley.
Conley’s confrontation was made possible, in part, because in 1983 there was no requirement that victims or survivors be notified as to the status of their case. Unless a diligent corrections officer or other criminal justice employee took the initiative it didn’t happen.
According to the Marsy’s Law website “While those accused of crimes have more than 20 individual rights spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, the surviving family members of murder victims have none.”
After years of lobbying by victims and victim advocates, California’s voters passed Proposition 8 – the Victims Bill of Rights – in November 2008. Also known as “Marsy’s Law,” it was named in memory of Marsalee Nichols.
Marsy’s Law is based on good science. Mental health professionals familiar with the trauma of victimization helped craft the law with an eye towards healing victims and protecting them from paroled offenders by giving them a voice and warning in a process that had long ignored their needs.
Contrary to that, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón advised his office in July that they would no longer be notifying crime victims of upcoming parole hearings. Further he would no longer be sending district attorney staff to what are known as “lifer hearings” to oppose the potential parole of an inmate.
Yet the law is clear – a victim now has right: “To be heard, upon request, at any proceeding, including any delinquency proceeding, involving a post-arrest release decision, plea, sentencing, post-conviction release decision, or any proceeding in which a right of the victim is at issue.”
Gascón apparently feels differently and said in a memorandum, “Victims experts have informed us that this is not a trauma-informed approach, and we agree. Contacting victims and their next of kin can be very triggering especially if they do not welcome the intrusion.”
Inexplicably, his office does not address the “triggering” potential of an encounter with a parolee by an unsuspecting victim, survivor, or a family member.
Further, Gascón chose to ignore the victims and family members who have affirmatively registered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, signaling their desire to be notified, and also the long-standing policy of his own Victims Services Office and Parole Unit, which has maintained its own database of individuals who indicated their desire to be notified. Gascón considers notification solely the responsibility of the CDCR.
The effect has been immediate. According to the CDCR web page, July was a successful month for prison inmates from Los Angeles seeking parole. Of the 753 parole hearings conducted, 14 % were granted for a total of 102 inmates who are pending release. 46 of those were from Los Angeles County alone.
While Los Angeles accounts for 25% of the population of California – convicted felons from Los Angeles comprise 45% of paroled inmates.
In comparison, San Diego had 3 releases granted: Orange County 7, San Bernardino 4, Riverside 3, and Alameda County 1. The district attorneys of those counties continue to attend lifer hearings.
Marsy’s killer died in prison before her family was faced with the specter of again facing him on the streets. It remains to be seen what the consequences of the pending release of 46 convicted felons in Los Angeles – some of whom were convicted of murder – will be.
In adopting this position, Mr. Gascón is taking the narrowest possible legal view of his obligation as District Attorney to protect both public safety and victim’s rights.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.