To commemorate the annual observance of the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims on September 25, Office for Victims of Crime Director Kristina Rose speaks to Roberta Roper about the murder of her beloved daughter, Stephanie, in this latest Justice Today podcast episode. Recalling the tragic event and its aftermath, Roberta shares the challenges she and her family faced while trying to navigate the justice system. In response to her experience, and in memory of her daughter’s life, Roberta founded the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, now known as the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center.
Hear Roberta’s inspiring story and how the crime victims’ field has changed in the past four decades and learn about the ongoing work that needs to be done to help all victims of crime find their justice.
NARRATOR: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we’re doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.
KRIS ROSE: I’m Kris Rose, the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime, a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and your host for today’s podcast. I’m here with Roberta Roper, the founder of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, now known as the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center.
For many of us who work in the crime victims’ field, Roberta Roper is a household name. Her advocacy for crime victims’ rights legislation in Maryland forever changed the landscape for crime victims, bringing forward needed reforms, victims’ rights, support, and healing for survivors and their families.
Roberta’s endless passion and steadfast dedication to improving the criminal justice response to crime victims was driven by the horrific and senseless murder of her daughter, Stephanie. She was determined to keep other families from experiencing what she and her husband did in the aftermath of Stephanie’s death.
This year, the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center celebrates its 40th anniversary! And it’s in that spirit, and in commemoration of the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, that we have asked Roberta to be here with us today to talk about the evolution of the crime victims’ movement over the past four decades and share with us her thoughts and hopes for the future of this work.
Roberta, it is such an honor to be spending this time with you today. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this podcast.
ROBERTA ROPER: Thank you, I am honored.
KRIS ROSE: And I know that this is your first podcast—it’s mine as well—so we will do the best that we can.
So, why don’t we start by getting to know Stephanie. Would you tell us about the kind of person that she was and describe what made her so special?
ROBERTA ROPER: Stephanie was the oldest of our five children. She was intelligent, beautiful, a gifted artist, and my best friend. I was once asked if there was a word—a single word—that would describe Stephanie and that word is sunshine because she was sunshine in an often gray, dreary world. When asked, after her death by her friends, how to pay tribute to Stephanie they said, “to live as she had lived with purpose and conviction, to walk in the direction of your dreams, and to show accomplishment in your life.” And that’s what she did in 22 short years.
KRIS ROSE: It’s amazing. And she sounds like someone I would have loved to have gotten to know.
Roberta, if you’re comfortable doing so would you briefly explain what happened to Stephanie and what it was like to navigate the criminal justice process that came afterwards?
ROBERTA ROPER: Stephanie came home that early April 1982, in her words, “to recharge her battery.” She was preparing for her senior art show and graduation at Frostburg State University. She and her roommate and best friend were going out that evening to meet other friends in the district and, initially, Stephanie was going to spend the night at a friend’s house, but she decided instead to come home. On a country road, in Prince George’s County, her vehicle became disabled. Two men approached and kidnapped her at gunpoint and over a five-hour period would repeatedly, and brutally rape her, torture her, eventually took her to a deserted shack in St. Mary’s County where they repeated those crimes. In the course of that time she overheard them say that they would have to permanently silence her because they had said each other’s names. Stephanie took that as another opportunity and tried to escape into this unknown wooded area. They caught up with her, fractured her skull with a logging chain, shot her to death, and then drug her body back to where the shack was, doused it with gasoline, and set her on fire. They would later begin dismembering her body.
The next morning, Stephanie didn’t come home. I called the police, who were dismissive. They said, “She hasn’t even been missing for 24 hours. We can’t come out and do a report.” But I begged them and someone came out. The officer was very annoyed and took the report, but left saying that Stephanie was probably just another runaway. Fortunately, Stephanie had worked with the Prince George’s County Police as a counselor for their safety patrol camp, and so the officers there formed a team to scour the neighborhood, do interviews. And she was missing for 9 days. And, unlike the original police officer, the ones assigned to the case always told us they would not just call us; they would come to our home and tell us in person what they had found.
On Easter Monday, in the middle of the night, we got a call saying they have to come and talk to us. They told us that Stephanie’s body had been recovered. I asked how she had died and if she had been sexually assaulted and they confirmed that. They said that one individual had been arrested and they were about to try to arrest the second, accused person. My husband reminded them to do everything by the books, not to violate any of their rights. And we proceeded to try to find the words to tell our children. As it was, that day was our youngest son’s 10th birthday and we had a birthday party because I used to call Steffi, Peter’s other mother because there was 12 years between them. And our house was like a zoo, I mean everybody was there. One individual who came was the moderator of the youth group at our church where Stephanie was involved, and he came with a clipboard in hand. And he said, “I’m in charge of the Stephanie Roper Family Assistance Committee.” Its purpose was to get us through a funeral and a trial. Never imagining for a moment that it would be so much more than that.
My husband and I tried to prepare ourselves as best we could for the first trial of the principal person accused of the crime—Jack Ronald Jones. We had never been in a criminal court. We did a search and found that the Maryland legislature had passed what was being proclaimed as the first victims’ rights law—a victim impact statement. So, we got a copy of it and gave it to the prosecutor in St. Mary’s County believing, naively believing, that as an attorney he knew what to do with it. We then, had the trial begin that would last more than 6 weeks. The accused person was tried in Baltimore County in Towson and we were subpoenaed by the state to be the opening witnesses to lay the stage, if you will. We knew nothing—none of the circumstances surrounding her abduction, the rape, the killing—we knew nothing. But we had a desperate need to know the truth. I didn’t want someone to tell me. I didn’t want to read it in the paper. And we believed that this trial would provide an opportunity to try to make some sense out of what was very senseless. But because we were subpoenaed, the defense argued before the court that the rule on witnesses should be imposed, and the court agreed, and we were barred from the entire guilt innocence phase of the trial.
That was one of the of hardest times of my life. It was a high-profile case. It attracted people from all over the community. There were no seats to be found in the courtroom for even our family or friends who wanted to sit. And I stood outside a courtroom door, pressing myself as closely to the pane of glass, to see and hear what I could hear. And at intervals when the court would take a recess, total strangers would come out and say, “What was Stephanie doing out at that time of the night?” “What was she wearing?” “How many drinks had she consumed?”
And two police officers that were assigned to the case were there with me and I said to them, if Stephanie had been a prostitute, she had been homeless, if she had been drunk, no one had a right to injure her. But she was none of those things. And it was my first education about what the court can do, what the defense can argue. The court was not allowed to see any photographs of her, saying that was inflammatory and prejudicial. And finally, the jury found Jack Ronald Jones guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and rape. I asked the prosecutor, “what about the victim impact statement? How do we use this? What happens?” And he said, “Oh, you have to take the stand and tell the court who Stephanie was and what this crime has done to you and your family and your community.” And he said, “because they know nothing.” So, I reluctantly took the stand and the defense then objected on the grounds that anything I had to say was emotional, irrelevant, and probable cause for reversal on appeal. And we were silenced. We then, listened to our daughter’s convicted killer weep, beg the court for mercy. We heard from his wife, his father, a jailhouse minister, his child’s teacher—all begging the court to treat him with leniency and mercy—and no one could speak for Stephanie.
We then went into the sentencing phase immediately after a break, we returned to the courtroom in the middle of the night. And the court imposed two life sentences plus 30 years to be served concurrently, that means as one. And under Maryland law then, it meant 15 years; but with parole eligibility, probable parole after 11 and a half years.
For us, that was kind of the final blow. We came home and faced children who wanted to know why their sister’s life was given so little value. And we didn’t have any answers for them. We immediately tried to get some counseling. Unlike today, there were not counselors who were familiar with dealing with homicide families. We went to good people who were compassionate and caring but told us they had never counseled families of homicide victims.
People grieve very differently, there’s no right or wrong approach. But husbands and wives and children, siblings, all do it differently. And we got to a point that I thought I’ve got to seek some help. And I found an organization, Parents Of Murdered Children. I must say they saved my life. They made me realize I was not alone, that I was not losing my mind.
And I would go frequently. Then, after a period of time, I told them that while I really valued what they had done for me, it wasn’t enough. I had to do something more. I saw what was happening to our children and I thought how can I give my children hope when I don’t care if I live or die? If I have no hope? And so my husband and I resolved that somehow, some way, we had to do whatever is in our power to improve the criminal justice system’s treatment of crime victims, whether that be in services or changing the law.
So, we went back to that wonderful group of people who formed the Stephanie Roper Family Assistance Committee. And I can’t tell you the overwhelming support we got from those individuals. Some of the finest people I have been privileged to know during my life. We became incorporated, began the process of getting incorporated, in October of 1982. Our current executive director, then, was a third-year law student and initially drafted a package of bills that we brought to the Maryland General Assembly in January of 1983. Included in them were the victim impact statement that was mandatory, one that removed the mitigating factor of the use of alcohol and drugs, and then another was a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Because, again, the public was outraged, as we were, that though this was considered one the most heinous crimes ever committed in our state, Stephanie’s killers could be free in 11 and half years. I didn’t mention that the second defendant would plead guilty in Anne Arundel County and receive an identical sentence.
So, that was our beginning in our education in the criminal justice process. later the state’s attorney in this County where the crimes began also filed charges for kidnapping and rape and the two defendants were then tried in Prince George’s County ending with a plea agreement. Kidnapping was considered a single crime whereas the rapes were multiple and so they could not be charged with kidnapping. Of course, the defense took it to the court of appeals and then special appeals and, ultimately, it was returned to the local court and those two men were found guilty of the rapes in Prince George’s County and received an additional life sentence. But in the interim, then we began trying to lobby and create public awareness about the consequences of crime on crime victims’ families.
KRIS ROSE: Did you ever think that this would be your life and that … you … because you had no involvement with crime or criminal justice prior?
ROBERTA ROPER: That was one of the strikes against me, especially! I was a Navy wife, I was a mother of five children, I was an art teacher; what did I know about the law? How dare I be critical? I can’t tell you the number of times we would come home from the trial in Towson and pick up the Washington Post and see some individuals describing us as vigilantes and that I was simply an emotional mother who wanted revenge.
KRIS ROSE: How did you deal with that, personally? How were able to continue moving forward especially during those times when people were so cruel?
ROBERTA ROPER: It was painful. There’s no question. I’d stop reading the paper sometimes. On the other hand, I wanted to know. When someone you love so much has been victimized in such a horrendous way, you think, nothing else can harm me. I cannot let them do this to us. We have to stand up and be stronger than them. And somehow we were able to do that. We endured and the first year that our bills were before the Maryland General Assembly we succeeded in the passage of a mandatory victim impact statement law. The removal of alcohol and drugs in a capital case was removed or the mitigating factors of those issues. And while we didn’t get life without parole passed until 1987, they did raise the time on a life sentence in a capital case from 15 to 25 years. So, again, an education.
We had extraordinary legislative sponsors at a time when crime victims’ rights issues were not a popular cause and they championed it and were with us and are with us today—those that remain living—and we owe them a great deal of gratitude for their leadership as well.
KRIS ROSE: Yes, I agree with you. One of the things that I’ve noticed in my job as the Director of OVC is that there is a reluctance to talk about crime victimization or to acknowledge the pain and the suffering that crime victims and their surviving families endure. And I was wondering if you have any thoughts around why that is and why there is a reluctance to engage crime victims and crime victim advocates/service providers in discussions around criminal justice reform.
ROBERTA ROPER: In my view, it’s to protect one’s vulnerability. If you really examine all the issues you have to recognize that but by the grace of God, go any of us. That’s why sitting in this room, where we see the photographs of just a fraction of the victims’ whose families we’ve served, it’s a powerful lesson to know that crime does not discriminate. Each of these individuals didn’t deserve the crimes committed against them and they represent all of us, from babies to grandparents and of every age and ethnicity and gender and social status, and none of that matters. But I think, you know, it’s primarily to protect our own vulnerability. Crime happens to other people.
KRIS ROSE: It’s hard for people to think that that could be them.
ROBERTA ROPER: And this includes not only advocates but prosecutors and judges and correctional folks, the whole gamut.
KRIS ROSE: You’ve had so many legislative victories. How many bills have passed in the State of Maryland because of you?
ROBERTA ROPER: Today, well, it’s a team effort.
KRIS ROSE: Of course, of course.
ROBERTA ROPER: And we have a wonderful team. Over 100 bills, have been passed.
KRIS ROSE: That’s amazing.
ROBERTA ROPER: Two, I couldn’t single out one. But the two that I would say rank at the top, I would say the law that created the victim impact statement. And today, that could be written, and oral, or both. I think that has made such a difference and there was so much controversy over that; that it’s going to be a competition and one life value over another, and not so. Every action has a consequence, and the court needs to know everything about the victim just as the court is required to know about the convicted offender. It’s very powerful to be with someone who has that opportunity to be the voice of their loved one. And often times they were not even allowed in the courtroom, or they were not allowed to speak at sentencing. So, it’s really a powerful thing. And then the other, of course, is the Maryland Constitutional Amendment for Crime Victims’ Rights that was passed in 1994 that really solidified, or not for all time, ‘cause it’s still a challenge and our attorneys still have to fight the battles because one would think that if the law is in place that people responsible for understanding the law would also fully apply the law, but that’s not true. And, so, that’s one of the benefits we have in being able to provide legal representation to crime victims, not to interfere with the prosecution of the case, but to ensure that they are treated with dignity; that their rights are fully honored and enforced. And the Maryland Constitutional Amendment is the foundation for that—making sure that victims are treated fairly, and they have a right to information, to be present, and to be heard.
KRIS ROSE: Those are such important things. I always talk about, in my experience working with crime victims and survivors, the three things that seem to be the most important are having access to the services and to the people…
ROBERTA ROPER: That’s right.
KRIS ROSE: … having options about the types of services that they want to have and that key piece that you just mentioned, information.
ROBERTA ROPER: Right.
KRIS ROSE: I’ve worked with so many crime victims who said that no one ever called them back, they didn’t know when something was happening, they found out on the news, they read it in the newspaper, they ... you know, never … an advocate called them once and then never called them back again. I just think that information piece is so critical.
ROBERTA ROPER: Absolutely. Our advocates and attorneys do that all the time. Even when there’s nothing to report, just to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. This is especially true in cold cases. Ask any family member of a homicide victim—what do they want? To know that you’ll say their loved ones name, you’ll remember them, that they lived and they were loved and their lives matter. And that’s one of the benefits of our support group, too, because we have people who come who have cold cases and yet they have access to support services that they routinely would not have in the criminal justice system.
KRIS ROSE: That’s so important and you said that so well.
What are some of the areas, Roberta, where you believe there is still so much more work to be done? You’ve done so much and covered so much ground but we also know we’re continuing to fight those battles and continuing to fight for the rights of crime victims. What rises to the top for you?
ROBERTA ROPER: Sadly, rights and services are more important today than ever. The volume of crime in our communities certainly demands that we not forget crime victims and their needs. Awareness. We have almost 1,000 cases that our advocates and attorneys deal with every year but that’s only a fraction of the number of crime victims in our state who even know that there’s someplace to call; some place that they will get support, someone to go with them to trial, to go to a parole hearing, to help them write a victim impact statement. So, public awareness. Changing the culture of the criminal justice process. I’ve often said that I would love to see the day when future attorneys taking the bar exam and then tend to be criminal attorneys would have to be knowledgeable about the rights of crime victims just as they must be knowledgeable about the rights of the accused. So, there is a great deal that remains to be done. And of course, to be eternally vigilant that what has been done is enforced. The human condition is to forget. And we should never forget.
KRIS ROSE: Roberta, one of the things that you mentioned in your book is “positive advocacy” and I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you interpret that and how you’ve used it in your work?
ROBERTA ROPER: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bitten my tongue and not said what I really would like to say, but you get to the point you want to win. You don’t want to damage your relationship with these key people. You want to persuade them of the justice of this cause. And I had good teachers. I was Executive Director for 20 years, and then followed by Russell Butler who was our Executive for, I think, the next 17 years, and now Kirk Wolfgang, but all of them have taught me important lessons and, actually, I saw it in practice. Again, you know, there are times when you become so frustrated with the inability of the players to see the rightness of your cause, the justness; even though you give them all the statistics, you bring in all the prominent people to testify.
And then the other lesson I learned is compromise. And we have been criticized for accepting, sometimes, the passage of a bill that changed over the hearings, it didn’t include everything that we wanted to have in it. But we accepted a compromise because it was something, it was the beginning. And then we could come back in the next year and say, “it’s insufficient, it’s not working.” And we had the proof to support that. So, those lessons were very powerful ones.
KRIS ROSE: Well, it obviously, that has served you well because of all of those legislative victories that you’ve had. It’s truly remarkable what you’ve been able to do in Maryland and we’re so grateful for what you’ve done for the residents of Maryland.
There were two presidents who really seemed to lift up the work that you did—President Reagan and President Clinton. Do you think that it is helpful or hurtful for someone so powerful to be engaged in your cause?
ROBERTA ROPER: Well, I believe it’s a very positive thing to have the president of our Nation recognizing the value of your work and supporting you. It’s replaceable. And we are grateful to both presidents, former presidents, Reagan and Clinton. Clinton was supportive in the era when we were working on a Federal Constitutional Amendment. That failed, ultimately, but instead the Federal Government passed the Justice for All Act of 2004, which again raises the level of victims’ rights and enforceability of those rights and the representation by an attorney to ensure that those rights are enforced. So, it was very powerful to have their support.
KRIS ROSE: One of the things I’ve noticed in the past year is that more and more young people are getting involved in the crime victims’ movement. And I was wondering if you had any advice for young people who are interested in getting involved in crime victims’ rights?
ROBERTA ROPER: Oh, the young people getting involved is very inspirational and gratifying. You don’t become an advocate or an attorney to represent the interest and justice for crime victims for fame or fortune. And I can tell you today that we have one of the most dedicated staff who clearly want to be here, want to do the work and that gives me great hope that … and we have to rely on the next generation to pass the torch and to ensure that what has been accomplished remains in place and only increases. So, yes, I’m grateful for all of them and I hope it increases.
KRIS ROSE: Yeah, me too. You made reference to it earlier, but I’ve also read that you’ve said, “of all the losses that crime victims suffer, the greatest loss is hope.” Can you talk a little bit about that and what you might say to parents of murder victims who have lost their hope?
ROBERTA ROPER: That’s a topic of discussion in our support group frequently. And I point out that even if the person responsible for the crime is arrested, stands trial, and is convicted of all the crimes and receives an appropriate punishment, that doesn’t change your reality. You still have to reinvent yourself because you’re never the same. It’s a re-creation. And you have the choice, you have to decide, what it is you want to do. And I encourage them to find something that they can pour their energy and their passion and their abilities into—whatever it is. Certainly, we would like them to be involved in supporting other crime victims. But if that’s not for them, and it isn’t for everyone, find something. That’s the best tribute you can pay to your loved one. And if you don’t do that—evil wins. The person who did this to you has taken your joy, your happiness, and that’s another loss and you cannot let that happen. And so we try to encourage them to find hope and I think that’s one of the gratifying things that we see in the group. Because unlike a lot of support groups, ours includes people for whom the crime has recently occurred, to people who it’s 10-20-30, and like might be 40 years. And they like that composition because they can give back and people can are constantly learning from other survivors. And so it’s an ongoing process and I do believe that in that process they regain hope and healing.
KRIS ROSE: Roberta, as I mentioned at the beginning of our chat today, it’s such an honor to be with you and one of the reasons for that is because I feel like I’ve known you for such a long time. I remember, very clearly, when Stephanie was murdered. I am the same age as Stephanie. And there was a time when I actually went to my mom and said, “if anything ever happens to me promise me that you will call Roberta Roper because the work that she’s doing and that’s what I would want you to do.” And I have frequently thought about you and about Stephanie over the years.
ROBERTA ROPER: Well, when you told me that, it was so heartwarming. And, again, it’s the issue of identification. You know, this wasn’t just about Stephanie, it was also about her siblings. There was a time, when I didn’t know that our family could survive. Each of our four children went their separate ways, but I am so proud of them today because they’re all adults, and leading good productive lives and are happy. And that’s one of the reasons I brought wrote this book to preserve the truth and to pay tribute to them, because they suffered beyond what anyone can imagine.
KRIS ROSE: Yes, and having read your book—A Rainbow from My Heart: The Stephanie Roper Story—I felt that. I felt that your closeness, not only with Stephanie but with your children, your husband, and how important that has been throughout your life. So, I just want to say thank you for everything that you’ve done for crime victims. I know I speak on behalf of my office, but not just my office, just the entire field when I say thank you, Roberta, for all that you’ve done and all the sacrifices you’ve made.
ROBERTA ROPER: Well, I thank you, Kris, and for the field as well. It’s been an honor to be involved in my very first podcast. And I wish we didn’t have to exist, but with the current leadership and staff I am sure it’ll continue for a very long time. Thank you.
KRIS ROSE: To learn more about the Office for Victims of Crime, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month.
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