It's difficult to empathize with Seth Mazzaglia.
The 32-year-old New Hampshire man was convicted in 2014 of strangling 19-year-old Lizzie Marriott, raping her inert body, and dumping it days later into the Piscataqua River, a 12-mile channel on the border of Maine and New Hampshire with strong currents emptying out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Marriott's body was never recovered. She doesn't have a grave, there was never a funeral service, and her grieving family never received closure aside from the hard-fought conviction that put Mazzaglia behind bars for life.
But now that small victory has been threatened by Mazzaglia's attorneys, who are appealing their client's conviction and arguing that claims about Marriott's sex life should be admissable in a new trial.
Mazzaglia's lawyers say Marriott willingly participated in rough sex with Mazzaglia and his then-19-year-old "sex slave" girlfriend, Kathryn McDonough. They say details of Marriott's sexual history would shed new light on the case and prove she enjoyed the kind of dangerous sex that ended with her death at the hands of Mazzaglia and McDonough.
Rus Rilee, lawyer for Marriott's parents, Bob and Melissa, told the Huffington Post that the Marriotts are traumatized by the possibility of a new trial dredging up accusations about their daughter's sex life. Rilee argues the accusations are just that: unproven allegations about Marriott that can't be corroborated, with the potential to victimize the Marriott family for a second time since their daughter's 2012 murder.
"This has completely traumatized her family, who, following this animal's rape and murder conviction, was just starting to heal and move on," Rilee said.
"It's important for them to fight this battle for Lizzi," he added. "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."
The judge overseeing the original trial wouldn't allow defense attorneys to delve into Marriott's alleged sexual proclivities, ruling the details inadmissable under New Hampshire's Rape Shield law. That law bars the use of a victim's sexual history to chip away at her or his credibility, but it's also instrumental in convincing witnesses to reveal details they might otherwise have kept to themselves for fear of those details going public.
Rape shield laws also protect victims' identities from being released to the public, a crucial element in many rape cases where victims might not otherwise come forward.
But on June 10, New Hampshire's Supreme Court ruled that records detailing Marriott's sexual past should be unsealed. The only thing that has prevented them from public release so far is an agreement by the state's high court to stay its decision, allowing the victim's lawyers to present an argument for why the records should be kept sealed, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Those arguments won't be hashed out until September at the earliest, the newspaper reported, with the next court date set for September 21.
This is a thorny issue made more complex by the circumstances of the case. Does a deceased person have an expectation of privacy? Does that extend to the victim's family? By refusing to admit evidence, does the court impede a defendant's ability to defend himself?
Despite those questions, it's clear Marriott's sexual history, such as it is, shouldn't be a factor. There's the obvious question of evidentiary value. Since people often guard their sexual histories closely, it's difficult to imagine that any supposed evidence about Marriott's past can be verified or trusted.
Aside from that, how does that information potentially absolve a defendant of guilt? McDonough, who testified against Mazzaglia in exchange for a lesser sentence, admitted under oath that she "lured" Marriott to the sexual encounter, and provided much of the detail that filled in the blanks in the case. The prosecution isn't relying on hearsay; it's presenting evidence from a witness who was there when Marriott was killed.
That testimony was buoyed by another witness, Roberta Gerkin, a friend and former sexual partner of Mazzaglia. McDonough called Gerkin for "help" after Marriott's death, according to CBS News.
Gerkin testified that she saw Marriott's body on the floor, and that Mazzaglia was repeating, "I've gone too far, I've gone too far." She told the court that she urged Mazzaglia to call an ambulance, but he never did.
And then there's the issue of precedent. If the state's Supreme Court allows Mazzaglia's attorneys to attack the reputation and credibility of a woman who isn't even alive to dispute the allegations, what does that say to future rape victims? We're talking about people who have already been traumatized and victimized, who are already fearful of coming forward and enduring the pain of a trial. Will those victims have any faith in the legal system if they can be dragged through the mud by defense attorneys?
The state Supreme Court's decision was met with incredulity and outrage by everyone from New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan to prosecutors, activists and the general public. It seems they're more in touch with reality than the state's justices are.
If those justices stop and really think about what they're doing, it should become clear to them that they're doing the wrong thing.