With a hint of apology and the words "not guility," a Maryland judge yesterday closed the case of State vs. Donna Rodriguez, the witness to a crime who was arrested when she missed a court appearance after waiting out four prior court delays.
"The court regrets the experience you had," District Court Judge Robert Heise told the trembling Rodiguez as she stood in his Glen Burnie court-room. He then acquitted her on charges of contempt of court.
The suspected prowler, whose case had brought Rodiguez into the justice system nine months ago, was tried yesterday, too. He was acquitted of larceny, the most serious charge against him, but convicted of tampering with an automobile and sentenced to 12 months probation. The judge ordered him to join a drug abuse program.
When it was all over, Rodiguez wondered why she had to be subjected to what she called humiliation of appearing in court as a defendant.
"Why couldn't they have handled it some other way?" she over and over.
The 21-year-old housewife became entangled in the court system when she heard a prowler and called police last Jan. 29 from a friends's home in the Millersville area, not far from the Fort Meade Army Base where she lives.
A suspect was arrested and charged. Then once in March and once in April, she took time off from work and went to court to testify against him. But he never appeared. Twice more she was ready to go to court but was told by officials she wasn't needed.
The fifth time, last Aug. 15 -- the day her Army Sergeant husband left for Korea -- Rodiguez missed a court date herself and was arrested, finger-printed, photographed with a number under her chain and charged with failing to appear, a form of contempt.
Rodiguez told Judge Heise yesterday that she had notified the court clerk's office "at least three weeks" before the Aug. 15 trial date that she could not appear and was told the case would be postponed.
To that, Heise responded: "Mrs. Rodriguez, the only thing i can say is I don't know of any clerk who would or could tell you what you just stated."
Normally, a clerk would direct a witness seeking a postponement to a judge or the prosecutor's office. Heise told Rodiguez with a stern look.
"Mrs. Rodiguez, I'm not trying to pick on you, because obviously you've had a rough experience," Heise told her as she peered up at the judge's bench. "But the fact is, you should have been in court."
But the Anne Arundel County state's Attorney's office, which had originlly requested Rodiguez's arrest last Aug. 15, asked that the charged be dismissed.
Citing the unusual number of postponements in the case and the fact that Rodiguez had voluntarily turned herself in to police, Heise then found her not quility.
Both the prosecutors and the judge, however, defended the need to arrest witness who fail to show up in court.
"You can't run a judicial system, you can't present evidence against the accused, if there is not control . . . requiring witness to testify," Heise said from the bench.
After her acuittal, Rodiguez testified in the same courtroom against Jesse Christopher, whom she said she saw prowling around outside the house where she was baby-sitting last January. Christopher, who had pleaded innocent, was found guilty of the single charge by Judge Heise in a nonjury trial.
The two trials lasted about an hour. Assistant State's Attorney David Plymyer said that time and again, witnesses change their minds about testifying and just don't show up.
"That's one side of the coin," Plymyer said. "The other is the witnesses who do come, and we don't want to penalize or hurt the innocent people who do what's right."
Plymyer worried that Rodiguez's experience in the system would disillusion more citizens and make them decide not to "get involved."
That's precisely how Rodiguez feels.
Although she left the courthouse yesterday with plymer helping her fill out papers to clear her record and escorting her to the cashier's window to get back her $100 bond, Rodiguez could talk of only one thing. "the judge didn't sound like he believed me. He didn't believe I called the clerk's office," she told a reporter.
If she had the choice again about reporting a crime or becoming a witness, "I wouldn't," Rodiguez asserted.
And plymyer said he could hardly blame her.
"I would be bitter too," the prosecutor conceded. "I'd reluctant to testify. That's why this is so unfortunate."
He said the court system must "keeping trying to be sensitive to witnesses," but that the volume of cases is so crushing, it is a difficult task.
Plymyer insisted the Rodiguez case was a fluke.
But could it happen again?
"I don't know if we could avoid it," he said, "through certainly we will try."