The Story of Zachary's Law

Several years ago the idea of Zachary's Law was born. In Pennsylvania, if you commit 3rd degree murder of a child the sentencing guidelines offer a wide ranged sentence of  6-40 years. There isn't a separate sentence that makes for a stiffer punishment if you murder a child. In Pennsylvania murder is murder. However because of the passage of Jessica's Law several years ago, if you violently sexually assault a child the sentence begins at 10 years and can range to life in prison. We knew the law couldn't actually intend to deliver a lighter sentence for the murder of a child. We felt like we had to step up and be a voice for this inequality in the law.

We made phone calls, and had meetings with representatives to let them know about the law. One just assumes that if a child is murdered the perpetrator of the crime would spend the rest of their life in jail.  Everyone we talked to was shocked to find out that this wasn't the case. Rep. Murphy heard us and decided to take action. He sponsored our bill. What this means is he had our idea vetted and written into a formal bill with an official bill number (HB 601). Once bills are assigned a number they are headed to their appropriate committee. Because our bill was dealing with modifying a sentence it was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. Once it was there we just waited and waited.... and waited.

Let me preface the rest of this story with telling you that I am just a mom... Zachary's mom. I am not a law maker. I actually didn't even know the first thing about how to make a law. The extent of my knowledge was I'm Just a Bill, from Schoolhouse Rock and a quick google search: PA how to make a law. The result was this PDF, that I printed out and kept on my nightstand as a reference. It's how I knew what questions to ask. 

After waiting I thought that there had to be something that I could do. I had researched and learned a few important things. 

  1. On average, 2,000 bills make it to a committee. 75% of them will never make it any further!
  2. There's a timeline to get a bill to become a law. It is two years. If your law is introduced towards the end of the two year period, as ours first was, there's not much time to do anything!
  3. Once the two year period is over, so is your bill. Even if you've made it 95% of the way, you need to start over in the new two year period.

After learning this I started asking questions. That's what I do best. I called Stephanie in Rep Murphy's office. She was his Legislative Assistant. She let me know who the Chairman was for the House Judiciary Committee. I learned that there were about 25 members. The Chairman is the most influential person on the committee as he can decide which bills will be discussed at their hearings. So naturally the next step was to reach out to the Chairman, then Rep. Caltagirone. I called and emailed. I asked my friends and family to call and email. I also wrote a form letter and published it on our Facebook page, CHILD and asked all of our followers to call and email. It did the trick. A few days later I got a phone call from David. He was the Legislative Director to the Judiciary Committee. He heard Zachary's story and he heard the idea for the law and he thought there was something there. He talked to the Chairman and he was also on board with helping. This was a huge step. Our voice was heard!

As I explained above the timing wasn't great though. We were at the end of a two year session and we had to wait for the new session to begin. This actually turned out to be a good thing! Without getting too technical, our bill need to be revised. The way it was written, it wouldn't hold water and I wanted our bill to be taken seriously. During this waiting time the bill was vetted further and rewritten. When the time came, our bill was polished and ready! We had revised it to ask for a mandatory minimum sentence of 13 years in prison for the 3rd degree murder of a child age 13 or younger.

The next two years were filled with phone calls, emails, reflections, road trips, waiting, tears, decisions, learning, worrying, compromise, commitment, endurance and SUCCESS!

Here's an attempt to over simplify a very complicated and long process:

  • An email and phone call campaign was started to educate the House Judiciary Committee of our bill. I shared Zachary's story with each and every member.
  • Our bill went before the House Judiciary Committee, led by Representative T. Caltagirone.
  • It was voted on and passed unanimously!
  • Our bill then went to the House where it sat waiting to be put on the table for a house vote
  • I couldn't do much except rely on the support I had gained for my bill to get it to be picked up for a house vote.
  • Our bill went through 3 days of consideration and then was voted on, on the House floor.
  • I was lucky enough to be a guest on the House floor and I was able to witness the voting! AMAZING experience! (Read about this day through the eyes of my great friend, Gene)
  • Our bill passed with a vote of 192-1 and a standing ovation! (You can see below in the videos, the passage of our bill in the House). Electrifying experience! 
  • Our bill graduated to the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is where we hit the roadblock of Senator Greenleaf. He is the Chairman of this committee and he refused to even have a hearing on my bill. He would not let a bill through his committee that had a mandatory minimum sentence, as ours did. He believed that a judge should have the discretion to come up with a sentence.
  • Nearing the end of a two year session we were faced with starting over or compromising. I knew some change to the law was better than no change. I went with the advice of people I trusted and I put my hurt feelings aside and decided to compromise. The language of our bill would be rewritten into a Senate bill (SB 850) that was about to be voted on and passed into Law before the end of the session.
  • We made the concession and changed our bill to read as an enhancement. An enhancement is added onto a sentence by the judge if criteria of the crime is met.
  • The Senate Bill our language was rolled in to was passed! Our bill became law in October 2012.
  • We met Governor Tom Corbett in January 2013 for our bill signing ceremony. Amazing.
  • Our enhancement went to the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission where it was defined as a two year enhancement, voted on and passed in June of 2013.
  • Our Enhancement has been in effect since the end of the summer of 2013!
  • Now it's a waiting to game to see how it effects sentences. 
    • Update: HB112 became a law on June 13, 2014! It seeks a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence for the murder of a child less than 13 years old. You can read more about it in my blog post.

At the end of the day I am one proud momma! Looking back I cannot believe what we accomplished together. It just shows me that will is a powerful thing! You can make a difference and stand up for what you believe. What makes this even sweeter for me is that it was all done in the memory of my son, Zach. Through this process I made new friends and shared his story with so many. I hope to have inspired people along the way and spread awareness.

"Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable" - Kenyan Proverb