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Council votes for resolution supporting Marsy’s Law, a proposed crime-victim rights amendment

The state House on Monday overwhelmingly approved Pennsylvania's version of Marsy's Law. The proposed constitutional amendment is now in the state Senate.

Jennifer Storm, who heads the state's Office of Victim Advocate, testified before Philadelphia City Council on Thursday, April 11, 2019, in favor of a Council resolution urging support for Marsy's Law.
Jennifer Storm, who heads the state's Office of Victim Advocate, testified before Philadelphia City Council on Thursday, April 11, 2019, in favor of a Council resolution urging support for Marsy's Law.Read moreJULIE SHAW / Staff

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday approved a resolution urging the state legislature to pass Marsy’s Law, which would give crime victims or their families legal rights if they are not notified of major developments in criminal proceedings, such as plea deals for defendants in violent crimes.

Councilwomen Blondell Reynolds Brown and Cherelle L. Parker introduced the resolution last week. “Crime victims deserve to be treated with respect and to have their voices heard throughout every step of the process," Brown said Thursday.

The state House on Monday approved a version of Marsy’s Law by 190-8. The bill is now before the Senate.

Under the law, victims or their advocates could petition courts for reconsideration of sentences if they or their families were not notified of a negotiated plea deal.

Advocates want Marsy’s Law enshrined as a constitutional amendment, saying the current state law, the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act, is toothless. The act already requires a district attorney’s office to notify victims in personal-injury crimes of significant decisions.

For the state constitution to be amended, a bill must pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before being added as a ballot referendum question. The Marsy’s Law bill unanimously passed both the House and Senate in the last session.

Jennifer Storm, who heads the state’s Office of Victim Advocate, testified at Thursday’s Council session, saying that in the state, “yes, victims of crime have rights. We have good rights in our commonwealth. The problem is, we have no remedy for when those rights are violated, so I would ask you: If there is no legal way to uphold your right, do you really have a right?”

In Philadelphia, under District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former criminal defense attorney who took office in January 2018, the office violated the state Crime Victims Act when it failed to notify victims or their families of plea deals in violent crimes or failed to let them know when it asked a judge to remove a killer from death row.

In one case, the office didn’t notify victim Mike Poeng, a West Philadelphia store owner who was nearly killed by a man wielding an AK-47 assault-style rifle during an attempted robbery, that it offered gunman Jovaun Patterson a plea deal of 3½ to 10 years in prison. Poeng heard about the November plea deal and sentencing before Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means from an Inquirer reporter.

Storm has said that if Marsy’s Law were in effect, she could have motioned the judge to reconsider the sentence. The judge would then have been required to hold another hearing, which could have resulted in the same outcome, but at least the victim would have had a say, Storm has said.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, say enshrining victim rights in the constitution would come at the expense of defendants.

"By equating victims’ rights with defendants’ rights, supporters of Marsy’s Law do not understand why protections for people accused of crimes exist in the constitution,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU, said in a statement. “The accused is facing a government, with all of its resources, that is trying to deprive that person of their liberty — and possibly their life.”

Parker said in a news release: “Elevating victims’ rights is not a zero-sum game. In no way, shape, or form does it diminish the rights of the accused and convicted. At the same time, survivors not only deal with the emotional, physical, and sometimes financial toll of a violent crime, but they also face a daunting criminal justice system.”

Storm said that 41 states, not including Pennsylvania, already have constitutional rights for victims, including 11 that have adopted a version of Marsy’s Law.

This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.