- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

The victims’ rights movement has made great strides nationally since its inception in the 1970s, legal analysts say — and the force behind the movement locally has been a 66-year-old Maryland grandmother from Croom.

Since 1982, when her daughter was raped and murdered, Roberta Roper has been helping victims of crime and their families have a voice in the courtroom.

“Twenty-one years ago no one was concerned about the victim,” the former art teacher told The Washington Times. “They had only one role — to win the case.”

Mrs. Roper led a movement in 1994 that resulted in an amendment to the Maryland Constitution giving victims of crime or their families a say in sentencing and plea bargains, and alerts them of developments in their cases and of parole hearings for the convicted.

Now, Mrs. Roper is pushing federal lawmakers to pass a proposed bipartisan Crime Victims’ Rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would put victims’ rights on par with those of defendants.

“Many victims are intimidated. They can’t express their rights if they don’t know they have rights,” said Mrs. Roper, who is co-chairman of the National Victims’ Constitutional Amendment Network. “Until the U.S. Congress acts to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights, victims and survivors will remain second-class citizens.”

In addition to Maryland, 32 states, including Virginia, have adopted constitutional amendments for victims’ rights. The District has a law that allows victims to get counseling and receive reimbursement for damages and losses in addition to attending trials, sentencings and parole hearings.

“Victims are better represented now than ever before in Maryland history,” said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Karen L. Bune, a victim-services consultant, said victims in Virginia are getting the same kind of help.

“Virginia has been very progressive in respect to victims’ rights,” said Miss Bune, who also is an adjunct professor in criminology departments of Marymount and George Mason universities. “Victims want to be apprised of what’s going on. It’s a healing process.”

Not all are pleased with the movement.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes a constitutional amendment, argues that victims’ inflammatory remarks would prejudice jurors against defendants, some of whom are innocent. The ACLU also has said victims might block plea agreements that could turn gang defendants against one another.

For example, Michael J. Fortier, a friend of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, accepted a plea agreement for a lesser prison term in exchange for testimony that helped convict McVeigh, said prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, who was principal deputy chief of the Terrorism and Violent Crime Section of the U.S. Justice Department.

McVeigh was executed in June 2001.

A victims’ rights movement might have blocked that plea agreement, she said.

The D.C.-based National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also opposes an amendment. The group, which represents more than 38,000 lawyers, claims an amendment would give “undue power” to influence and impede the decisions of judges and prosecutors in courts nationwide, said Jeralyn Merritt, a spokeswoman for the association.

“At great financial cost, it would leave us with a judicial system no longer dedicated to determining guilt or innocence, but preoccupied with airing rage and seeking retribution,” Ms. Merritt said.

More than 60,900 convicts are serving time in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. prisons, which means that the number of victims in the region is at least that high.

The Bureau of Prisons informs victims of furloughs, escapes, halfway house assignments and parole hearings. Victims may attend or submit written statements at hearings.

The Maryland Parole Commission sends out about 4,000 notices of upcoming hearings annually, said Patricia K. Cushwa, chairman of the commission. The commission conducts about 11,000 hearings a year for probation or parole of eligible convicts among the 24,000 prisoners in the state’s 27 prisons, she said.

The Virginia Parole Board holds an estimated 8,500 hearings a year for eligible convicts. The state’s 50 prisons are housing about 30,900 prisoners.

“We consult with victims before making final decisions on paroles,” said Helen F. Fahey, a former U.S. district attorney who now is chairman of the Virginia Parole Board.

The board tries to notify victims about board meeting schedules near the time of parole hearings for convicts, Ms. Fahey said. The families of victims also have the right to witness executions, said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Few victims or families have attended probation or parole hearings since Virginia lawmakers in 1995 passed a law that required convicts to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The convicts may be released after serving 85 percent of their term for good behavior and have shown an inclination to obey laws after they are released.

“It is not always easy to locate the victims,” because of the length of time since sentencing, Ms. Fahey said. But all victims may make statements to the board annually. “We get letters all the time,” she said.

The District has a tougher time accommodating victims because all of the D.C. convicts have been relocated to federal prisons since the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County closed in November 2001. Still, officials try to send local convicts to prisons within 500 miles of the District, like Lewisburg, Pa., to make it easier for victims and their families to attend hearings.

Convicts nationwide are released after serving an average of 35 percent of their sentences, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Statistics reported.

It generally is better to parole convicts with some restrictions and supervision for the remainder of their terms than “an outright release,” said Mrs. Cushwa, a former state senator and founder of Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused in Washington County.

“It’s just been a massive change in thinking in the parole system,” Mrs. Cushwa said.

She said fewer ex-convicts placed on restrictions supervision are arrested for new crimes and returned to prison within three years after their release.

No statistics so far indicate that the victims’ rights movement has had any effect on recidivism, the Bureau of Statistics said. Nationwide, statistics show that slightly more ex-convicts are being arrested for new crimes now than 20 years ago.

The most recent data show the recidivism rate for nearly 300,000 convicts released in 15 states, including Maryland and Virginia, was 68 percent in 1994. That rate was 63 percent in 1983.

The recidivism rate in Maryland is 51 percent, compared with 43 percent in 1992. Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md., which specializes in rehabilitation of convicts, had a zero recidivism rate between 1989 and 2000.

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Thirty years ago, a victim’s experience with the criminal justice system was often cold and impersonal. The needs of victims, the trauma and stories of suffering and lost security were an afterthought in the criminal justice system.

“Victims were often met with confusion, intimidation and frustration,” Mrs. Roper said.

Mrs. Roper became all too familiar with the justice system when the two men who killed her daughter, Stephanie, 22, were charged with murder.

Jack Ronald Jones and Jerry Lee Beatty kidnapped, raped, beat and set fire to Miss Roper before dumping her body into a swamp in St. Mary’s County on April 2, 1982, just a month before she was to graduate from Frostburg State University. Her body was found on April 11, 1982, the same day her younger brother celebrated his 10th birthday.

Mrs. Roper said the family was never informed of postponed court hearings. The family was also excluded from attending the suspect’s trials. She also said family members weren’t allowed to address the court at sentencing and explain their suffering after the men were convicted of murdering Miss Roper.

“While two men took our daughter’s life, we never expected the criminal justice system to make us victims,” Mrs. Roper said. “The sentencing left me with the underlying concern of justice and fairness. … Our problem was not unique. Why didn’t someone else start all of this? It’s uplifting now to see someone in the depths of despair lifted — to restore hope in a life.”

So Mrs. Roper took it upon herself to make some changes, at least locally.

She and her husband, Vincent, formed the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, which is now known as the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center in Upper Marlboro. It was created one year before the National Center for Victims of Crime was established, a group that endorses similar programs nationwide.

“We were one of the pioneers,” Mrs. Roper said.

Since its inception, the foundation has supported more than 65 bills that have become state laws.

“The Roper Foundation is the most successful lobbying group in the history of Maryland,” said Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George’s Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Maryland. “[Mrs. Roper] has had a national effect. … Many states have victims’ rights now.”

The movement also has resulted in domestic violence shelters, support groups for families of homicide victims, and rape-crisis centers nationwide.

“Mrs. Roper did a great job and she’s been the foremost advocate for victims’ rights across the country,” said Heather Cartwright, chief of the Victim/Witness Assistance Unit with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee conducted hearings about adding a victims’ rights amendment to the Constitution. The amendment would give victims of violent crime the right to be notified of public proceedings involving the crime, to testify at sentencing and parole hearings, and to have their claims of restitution considered.

The committee approved the amendment by a 10-2 vote. Amending the Constitution requires approval by two-thirds, or 67, of the U.S. senators and three-quarters, or 38, of the states.

The amendment was introduced in 2002 by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

President Bush supports the amendment. In a speech in April 2002, he summed up what Mrs. Roper and other victims’ rights advocates have been saying for the last 21 years.

“Too often our system fails to inform victims about proceedings involving bail and pleas and sentencing and even about the trials themselves,” Mr. Bush said at an April 16, 2002, awards ceremony honoring victims’ rights advocates. “Too often, the process fails to take the safety of victims into account when deciding to release dangerous offenders. Too often, the financial losses of victims are ignored.”

Mrs. Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco in 1981 when California was the first to adopt such an amendment. At a Judiciary Committee hearing in July, Mrs. Feinstein described an incident that helped persuade voters to pass the amendment.

In 1980, an intruder broke into a home, fatally beat a man, raped and tied up the man’s wife before setting fire to the house. The woman escaped and the killer was arrested, convicted and sent to prison, Mrs. Feinstein said. The woman changed her name and moved but was still afraid.

“She begged to be notified when he was released,” Mrs. Feinstein said at the hearing. “She believed he would track her down and kill her.”

But not all lawmakers support the amendment.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and a former prosecutor, told the Judiciary Committee that victims’ rights can be upheld more specifically by state and federal laws.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, agreed: “We must not undermine the criminal justice system.”

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, also favor laws rather than a victims’ rights amendment.

“I strongly believe victims of crimes have a right to know, a right to be heard and a right to be represented,” Miss Mikulski said. “That’s why I support strengthening our laws to make sure crime victims are consulted in prosecutions, sentencing and parole hearings.”

A spokesman for Mr. Sarbanes said the senator has co-sponsored a Justice Enhancement and Security Act, which guarantees reasonable protection for victims and the right to participate in detention hearings, trials and sentencings.

“[Mr. Sarbanes] believes that the concerns expressed by those seeking to add a victims’ rights amendment to the Constitution can be more properly addressed with a statutory response,” spokesman Jesse Jacobs wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

Thanks to victims’ rights, the Ropers will be informed and allowed to speak at the parole hearings of their daughter’s killers. Jones, 47, and Beatty, 38, are expected to come up for parole in about five years. The Ropers also will be able to tell the Maryland Parole Board how their daughter’s death has affected them, their children and grandchildren.

“Going into a prison for a parole hearing is uncomfortable,” Mrs. Roper said. “The commission is making every effort to put you at ease and to assure you of your security.”


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