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The Orange County Register: On victims' day, Henry Nicholas recalls sister

She could be anyone's sister; looking back at you on her namesake Web site: a pretty blonde in rainbow-patterned suspenders, holding her horse's bridle, later to be murdered by an ex-boyfriend. She could be anybody's sister. But she happened to be the sister of a future billionaire.

On a day when Orange County would hold a rally to celebrate and promote advances in victims' rights, it is instructive to remember the case of the young woman whose name would go on the nation's most sweeping victims'-rights law. So, a couple of hours before Tuesday's march, I sat down with Henry Nicholas, who talked about the murder of his sister, Marsy, the impact on his family and how he came to work with Todd Spitzer to make Marsy's Law part of the state Constitution.

Marsy was a 23-year-old college student in 1983. Her boyfriend of five years was Kerry Conley, a carpenter who lived in makeshift quarters he fixed up in his parents' Malibu backyard. A manipulating, intimidating presence, "I hated him from the start," Nicholas says. "I knew he was bad news."

Marsy finally broke up with Conley around Thanksgiving. Five days later, he talked her into coming to his shack in the middle of the night. He shot her in the face with shotgun. She lived four hours, during which time her brother came to see her in the hospital, an episode that caused Nicholas nightmares for years.

Nicholas might have become just another lifelong-grieving family member of a murder victim, except: 1) Conley flaunted the crime in the Nicholas family's face, and 2) Nicholas would become one of the richest men in America.

"Right after the funeral, my mother was in the supermarket buying a loaf of bread. She went up to the checkout stand, and there was my sister's murderer, staring her down. He would drive around our neighborhood in a convertible, flaunting."

Unbeknownst to the Nicholas family, Conley had made bail. Twenty-five years later, Marsy's Law would change that.

Conley was convicted and got a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Every two or three years, Nicholas and his parents would have to drive to Soledad for the parole hearing, and make their case to a parole board. "It's 105 degrees and you're in sitting in a room across the table from this murderer." On the second trip to Soledad, the stress broke Henry's mother; she literally had a heart attack. (She survived. Conley later died in prison.)

Remember, Nicholas was just a junior engineer at TRW – he and Henry Samueli wouldn't create Broadcom for years. But he got involved in the victims'-rights movement, got to know Pete Wilson and Collene Campbell, sister of the murdered racer Mickey Thompson.

Shortly after I started writing this column in 2004, Spitzer, then in the Assembly, started talking to me about this grandiose idea to create a victim's version of the Miranda rights. I went to some meetings he had with victims'-rights groups, politicians, police chiefs, etc. Trying to get everyone on the same page with something that was workable, legal and meaningful seemed daunting.

But by now, Nicholas was a billionaire. The confluence of a guy with a lot of money and a guy with a lot of moxie was what it took to get Marsy's Law passed by voters in 2008. Nicholas worked on the campaign, even after he was under indictment – driving his defense attorneys crazy. "Brendan Sullivan was, like, (shaking me, saying), 'What are you doing working with prosecutors???!!!' Nicholas recalls.

It is kind of amazing, when you think about it, that there is now a state Constitutional requirement that crime victims or, in homicides, victims' families be given a list of rights that runs 17 items long.

Under Marsy's Law, the Nicholas family would have been informed that Conley was up for bail and could have their own attorney represent them at a bail hearing. Under companion Marsy's Law statutes, the Nicholases would not have had to drive up to Soledad every three years. Parole boards can now set denials for seven, ten or 15 years. Plus, prosecutors have to return victims' calls; criminals pay mandatory restitution, and more.

Having conquered California, Nicholas has a new goal. "We're going to try to amend the U.S. Constitution."

Read online at The Orange County Register