WASHINGTON― In a case that could affect sexual assault victims’ rights around the country, the parents of a 19-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in 2012 are fighting to convince the New Hampshire Supreme Court to keep the details of her sexual history from being made public.
The court will decide in September whether Seth Mazzaglia, who was convicted in 2014 of raping and killing Lizzi Marriott, a student at the University of New Hampshire, has a right to unseal and use details about Marriott’s sexual past as he appeals his conviction. That evidence was deemed inadmissible during the trial because of New Hampshire’s “rape shield” law, which limits a defendant’s ability to use the prior sexual behaviors of a rape accuser as evidence against her. But the court may decide that the rape shield law and its privacy protections do not apply in the appellate process.
“Because the criminal defendant decided to file an appeal, all of Lizzi’s prior alleged sexual history, which was very much disputed, is now threatening to be made public for the world to see,” Rus Rilee, the attorney representing Marriott’s parents, told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “This has completely traumatized her family, who, following this animal’s rape and murder conviction, was just starting to heal and move on.”
In the 2014 case, Mazzaglia, 32, was convicted of strangling Marriott with a rope in his apartment, raping her lifeless body, and disposing of it in a river. His attorneys claimed that Marriott died accidentally during a consensual sex act involving constraints. But Mazzaglia’s then-girlfriend, who witnessed the murder, testified that Mazzaglia had become angry and strangled Marriott to death because she refused his sexual advances. The defense tried to use details of Marriott’s sexual history as evidence that she may have voluntarily participated in a dangerous sex act, but a judge deemed those records inadmissible, sealed them, and sentenced Mazzaglia to life in prison without parole.
Mazzaglia appealed the decision in January, arguing that he had not received a fair trial because evidence from Marriott’s sexual past should have been admissible in court. Lawyers for the state and for Marriott’s family will argue against Mazzaglia’s public defender before the Supreme Court next month over whether Marriott’s “alleged prior consensual sexual activity” must now be unsealed and available for use during the appeals process.
“The appellate process can’t be fair if it’s secret,” said Christopher Johnson, Mazzaglia’s appellate public defender. “We don’t do secret appeals in this country, by and large.”
Johnson explained in his brief to the state Supreme Court:
The sealing of the briefs and the closure of the oral argument would leave the public ignorant of the precise nature of the arguments Mazzaglia has made in claiming that the trial court erred, under the particular circumstances of this case, in excluding the proffered evidence. The public knows now, on the basis of the public revelation of the rape shield dimension of the appeal, only that Mazzaglia has claimed that certain evidence about Ms. Marriott’s other sexual relationships, interests, and experiences should have been admitted. It will not know, though, what that evidence was, why the defense thought it should have been admitted, what the State argued in response, or why the trial court excluded it.
Rilee will argue that the public’s right to transparency in government and legal proceedings is not served by the disclosure of unproven allegations about a rape victim’s sexual history.
“Lizzi has even in her death a constitutional right to privacy that is not outweighed by the general public’s right to access to the courts,” he said. “You can imagine what the implications of that would be on a national level if crime victims, especially those of violent sexual crimes, knew that if they reported the crime and the defendant chose to appeal, their sexual history would be public record. It would have a chilling effect on victims coming forward.”
Rilee said the New Hampshire decision could have broad implications for rape shield laws around the country, which each state has in one form or another. “Defense lawyers across the United States could use this as a precedent to explain why rape shield statutes should only apply during the trial,” he said.
The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, along with victims’ rights organizations around the country, filed a brief in support of Marriott’s parents’ case on Monday. They cited a recent national survey of 23,000 undergraduate students who said the main reasons they were reluctant to report being sexual assaulted were fears about confidentiality and being blamed for the assault.
“Protecting sexual assault victims’ privacy is even more important now, with the advent of the Internet and social media,” the coalition wrote. “There is a huge difference between traditional in-person access to court records at a courthouse
and Internet access through Google and electronic filing systems.”
Rilee said Mazzaglia’s appeal and the legal battle over Marriott’s sexual history has been “absolutely horrible” for Marriott’s parents, but they are coping as best as they can for the sake of their daughter’s memory.
“It’s important for them to fight this battle for Lizzi,” he said. “Her right of privacy is the only right this animal didn’t take away from her when he raped and murdered her. It’s all she has left.”