FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Senate overwhelmingly backed a proposal Wednesday to award constitutional protections to crime victims, giving them a greater voice at their alleged assailants’ criminal proceedings.
Senators voted 34-1 to pass the proposed constitutional amendment, wrapping up quick action on the measure.
The bipartisan vote came after a woman told a Senate panel she felt powerless when her attacker’s rape charge was reduced to misdemeanor assault without her knowledge.
“I was absolutely shocked,” the woman, who identified herself as Lisa, told the Senate State and Local Government Committee. “It felt like I was being revictimized all over again, but this time it was by the judicial system.”
The proposed ballot measure now goes to the House. If it passes, it would be put before Kentucky voters in November.
Known as Marsy’s Law, the proposal would increase the rights of crime victims and their families. Those guarantees would include the right to notice of court proceedings, the right to be present at judicial hearings and the right to be heard at pleas and other proceedings.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the measure’s lead sponsor, said protections in existing Kentucky law for crime victims are inadequate.
“Statutory protections, when they go head to head with the rights of the accused that are enshrined in the Constitution, they lose,” said Westerfield. R-Hopkinsville. “Right now, the victims are not on equal footing with the accused. I believe they should be.”
The woman who appeared before the Senate committee said she was drugged and raped by her husband. She said she thought “the worst was over” when he was charged with rape and faced a potential prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.
She said she was shocked when she learned of a plea deal that reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, and that her attacker would serve no prison time.
“Had Marsy’s Law been in place, my dignity and my emotional and physical safety would have been taken into consideration, and I would have been permitted to stand before the court at the plea hearing and be heard by the court,” she said. “My input may or may not have had an impact on the outcome of the case, but I would have felt that my voice had not once again been silenced.”
The measure drew some objections from an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, who said it could lead to “confusion and disarray” in the courts.
The attorney, Heather Gatnarek, said crime victims sometimes aren’t treated with the respect they deserve. But she said the changes in the proposal would allow victims to have their own attorneys or advocates make arguments in court alongside prosecutors and defense attorneys.
She raised a scenario in which victims’ attorneys could file motions for speedy trial dates, even if prosecutors or defense attorneys needed more preparation time.
The proposal also would guarantee victims the right to notification of their assailants’ release or escape, the right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay and the right to reasonable protection from the accused.
The measure is among a stack of proposed constitutional amendments that lawmakers are considering.
The legislation is Senate Bill 3.