By Gretchen Schuldt
Alleged crime victims can intervene in at least some criminal court cases if the victims disagree with defendants' motions and want to formally oppose them, the State Court of Appeals said in a decision released Thursday.
Previously, a criminal case was between the state and the defendant, but voters in April approved a victims' rights amendment to the state constitution that granted alleged victims new rights. Those include the right "to be heard in any proceeding during which a right of the victim is implicated...."
The amendment also gives the alleged victims the right "to refuse an interview, deposition, or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused" and eliminates the only mention of a defendant's right to a fair trial.
Thursday's ruling means that criminal defense lawyers may have to fight for their clients both against prosecutors and against interventions by alleged victims. Prosecutors, if they disagree with an alleged victim's position, may be put in a similar position.
The District IV Court of Appeals panel also said the amendment applies to cases in which the crime occurred before the "Marsy's Law" amendment was ratified in April.
Full disclosure: WJI, three individual voters, and Sen. Fred Risser are suing to overturn the amendment, approved by voters in April. The plaintiffs argue that the ballot question failed to fully and fairly inform the public of the essential components of the amendment, misstated the contents and impact of the amendment, and improperly encompassed more than one subject. A decision in the case is pending.
Thursday's ruling reversed a decision by Waupaca County Circuit Judge Raymond S. Huber, who said the victim in the case, identified in the decision only as "T.A.J." and "T.," did not have a right to intervene in a battle over whether Huber should privately review T.'s medical records to determine whether they should become part of the court case.
The appeals panel, in a decision written by Appeals Judge Michael R. Fitzpatrick, said it was "manifest" T. has the right to be heard in a circuit court proceeding that implicates his rights or privileges.
Fitzpatrick was joined in his decision by Appeals Judges Brian W. Blanchard and JoAnne F. Kloppenburg.
The defendant in the case, Alan S. Johnson, was charged with multiple crimes stemming from his alleged sexual assault of T. As part of his defense, Johnson asked to review T.'s records.
The state did not oppose Johnson's request, but T. hired a lawyer and sought to intervene, arguing that T. had standing to oppose Johnson's motion and that Johnson's argument was not strong enough win the in-camera record review.
Huber, relying on previous case law, ruled that T. did not have standing. T. appealed; the state supported the appeal.
The appeals panel found that Marsy's Law overrides the case law precedent. The court also found that the amendment is retroactive, although Marsy's Law does not contain language to that effect.
"We agree with the State that...provisions (of the amendment), read together, express the intent that the 2020 constitutional amendment applies to pending motions in cases initiated prior to passage of the amendment," Fitzpatrick wrote.
Johnson also argued that allowing T. to oppose the records review motion essentially made him part of the prosecution team, but the panel said the matter "does not implicate hallmarks of substantive criminal law."
Marsy's Law, the panel noted, mandates that victims' rights be "protected by law in a manner no less vigorous than the protections afforded to the accused."
Left unanswered by Thursday's decision is whether the state is obligated to provide a lawyer to represent indigent victims, as it does for indigent defendants.
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