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St. Augustine Record: Proposed law would establish a ‘bill of rights’ for victims in Florida

Monday, January 29, 2018

By Colleen Jones

Marie Colee fell in love at 18 with a guy three years her senior who looked like the perfect surfer boy on the outside, but hid the heart of a monster inside.

Colee began seeing beyond that polished veneer even in the early days of the relationship; she just chose to ignore the signs — the nasty sneers, the insults and the curses — thinking he would change.

They had a son together. Then the beatings began, routinely leaving her with bloody lips and bruises.

Colee taught herself to hide the scars from her family, friends and coworkers. But it didn’t take long for Colee’s husband to start covering his own tracks.

“He figured out how to inflict pain in a way that would not leave marks visible to others — usually resulting in blows to the head and torso,” Colee, who lives in St. Augustine, said.

She left many times, only to be pulled back into his web again.

“He either would threaten me with things, or else make promises to make me come back,” Colee said.

Her abuser held all the cards, while she — the victim — was left to fend for herself. After 22 years, she’d had enough. At age 40, Colee finally found the courage to seek help escaping the physical, verbal and emotional abuse she’d endured. With the assistance of Hubbard House, a domestic abuse shelter in Jacksonville, Colee filed for a restraining order.

But, as she began to work through the legal system, she once again felt a lack of control.

“I’d sit in court and think, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ I had no police documents, no medical documents,” Colee said. “And I’d shrink back in my seat.”

At times, she felt like a shadow — visible but not vital — in the criminal justice system as she tried to get protection under the law.

If a new law is passed in Florida, victims of crimes would receive greater protection than Colee ever did. While the U.S. and state constitutions outline rights for those accused and/or convicted of crimes, Marsy’s Law would provide a kind of “bill of rights” for victims, just as those arrested are advised of their Miranda Rights. If the law is passed, victims would no longer be forced to provide a deposition to the defense — protecting them from oftentimes hostile questioning. Victims would also have to be notified and, if they choose, be present at any court proceeding related to their case, including sentencing or parole hearings.

“This just puts victims and their families on equal footing, nothing more and nothing less,” said Jennifer Fennell, a spokesperson for Marsy’s Law for Florida. “They should be treated with dignity and respect and have a chance to be heard.”

Marsy’s Law for Florida is currently under review by the state’s Constitution Revision Commission. The measure received approval by the commission’s Declaration of Rights committee earlier this month. The next step is passage by the commission body as a whole. If it gets the nod, Marsy’s Law will be placed on the general ballot in the November 2018 election in an attempt to amend the state constitution.

Supporters say Marsy’s Law for Florida would give victims a voice in the criminal justice process.

Sen. Lauren Book (D-Broward County), the bill’s sponsor, has spoken publicly about her past as a survivor of child abuse. When she was deposed in the case, Book says the pain of having to relive those details all over again made it even worse.

“It’s putting victims through a potentially hostile, difficult line of questioning,” Fennell said.

Florida is just one of four states that requires mandatory depositions by the defense. Marsy’s Law would give victims the option to choose if they want to testify.

Colee, now 56, uses her own experience as a domestic violence survivor to advocate for other victims. She has remarried and has her hands full working full time as well as serving as the legal guardian for her two grandchildren. Rylee, 8, and Raegan, 3, who she claims are the other victims of her ex-husband’s abuse. Colee says her son, the girls’ father, turned to drugs to cope with the trauma caused by witnessing the abuse.

Still, Colee has hope for those caught in the cycle of violence, especially if Marsy’s Law is adopted.

“It’s going to give victims and their families peace of mind; it’s going to give them a voice,” Colee said. “And it’s going to give them a chance to stand up and speak out.”


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