‘Tennessee needs this,’ say families of violent crimes pushing for more rights in justice system

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Families part of a club no one wants to join are pushing for more rights in Tennessee. These families have lost loved ones to violent crime.

This week lawmakers announced they’re working to strengthen those rights by modifying the state constitution.

It’s called Marsy’s Law, a joint resolution introduced by State Senator John Stevens (R) of Huntingdon and State Representative Patsy Hazelwood (R) of Signal Mountain. Lawmakers say it would give clear, enforceable rights and protections for victims.

MORE ONLINE: Senate Joint Resolution 885

The Berry family tells me more than 15 years later, they want fairness in the justice system for all of us in Tennessee.

In December 2004 a stranger broke into Johnia Berry’s apartment and took her life.

“Our lives are forever changed. It’s forever changed and nothing’s going to ever be the way it was,” said Joan Berry, Johnia’s mom.

Johnia Berry was killed by a stranger in December 2004.

For two-and-a-half years, investigators searched for Johnia’s murderer. Taylor Olson was arrested, arraigned in court but he hanged himself in jail before he could be convicted.

“It’s heartbreaking. You think about it all the time,” said Berry.

Related: East TN families pause on Wednesday remembering loved ones lost to violent crimes

The Berry family has been advocating for victims’ rights for years but they believe Tennessee can do better, “I’ve met people who have actually been out in the public and ran into the person that murdered their loved one and there are no words to express how that takes you back.”

Berry is among many families pushing for Marsy’s Law to pass, “Tennessee needs this and it would make a difference in a lot of family member’s lives.”

The rights in the bill include:

  • The right to be treated with fairness for the victim’s safety, dignity, and privacy;
  • The right, upon request, to reasonable and timely notice of, and to be present at, all criminal public proceedings and all juvenile delinquency proceedings involving the accused;
  • The right to be heard in any proceeding involving release, plea, sentencing, disposition, and parole, as well as any public proceeding during which a right of the victim is implicated;
  • The right to be free from harassment, intimidation, and abuse throughout the criminal justice system, including reasonable protection from the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused;
  • The right, upon request, to reasonable notice of any release or escape of an accused;
  • The right to refuse a request by the defendant, the defendant’s attorney, or any other person acting on behalf of the defendant for an interview, deposition, discovery request, or other communication with the victim;
  • The right to full and timely restitution from the offender;
  • The right to a speedy trial or disposition and a prompt and final conclusion of the case after the conviction or sentence;
  • The right, upon request, to confer with the prosecution;
  • The right to be fully informed of all rights afforded to crime victims.

“And if we have questions, we want to be able to ask those questions and at any time get answers. I think that’s our right and we deserve it,” said Berry.

The Berrys say they can only look toward the future, hoping to help families who may be in their shoes one day.

MORE: Families of violent crimes at peace after passage of ‘Truth In Sentencing’ bill

“I’m grateful for the time I had her. I’d rather have had her for 21-years then never had her at all. I think this is something she would be very passionate about if she were here,” added Berry.

If passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and signed by the governor, the constitutional amendment guaranteeing these protections would be placed on the November 2022 ballot for voters to approve.

Marsy’s Law is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas of California who killed by her former boyfriend in 1983. Only one week after her death, Marsy’s mother and brother, Henry T. Nicholas, walked into a grocery store where they were confronted by the accused murderer.

The family, who had just come from a visit to Marsy’s grave, was unaware that the accused had been released on bail. Henry formed Marsy’s Law for All in 2009.

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