It has been seven months since 22-year-old college senior Stephanie Ann Roper of Croom was brutally killed, and the two men convicted of her murder, Jack Ronald Jones and Jerry Lee Beatty, are serving life sentences in the Maryland State Penitentiary.
Yet Jones' lawyer still gets nasty phone calls. The 12 Baltimore County jurors who recommended that Jones live, rather than die in the gas chamber, have been damned repeatedly in letters to the editors of area newspapers. And a conservative law lobby has asked for an official review of the judge who imposed two concurrent life sentences on Jones. That decision could make Jones, who is 26, eligible for parole in 12 years and nine months.
Prosecutors, angered by what they have called "leniency" in Jones' sentence, have sought additional charges against him. A Charles County grand jury last week indicted Jones on drug charges stemming from an incident last February, and in Prince George's, where authorities say events leading to Roper's murder began, the state's attorney is seeking further charges against Jones.
The reaction does not end there. Representatives of the Stephanie Roper Committee -- founded by friends of the Roper family who say they now have more than 800 members -- organized to rally yesterday at the State House in Annapolis as they filed a vast assortment of tough anti-crime bills. They say the bills will make it more likely that a convicted murderer will die, less likely that he will ever go free on parole, and will correct what the victim's parents, Vincent and Roberta Roper, repeatedly have called a "travesty of justice."
The Ropers put it more mildly than some other critics. Local newspapers, which have editorialized frequently and at length, have called it an "outrage," and people in man-on-the-street interviews have been harsher. One series of interviews concluded with an 11-year-old boy saying the gas chamber was too good for Jack Jones, that he should be "buried alive."
Co-defendant Beatty, 17, received the same sentence after pleading guilty to murder, rape and kidnapping charges. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty for Beatty, who had cooperated with them in the Jones trial a week earlier.
"I've never seen this kind of a response," said Del. John W. Wolfgang, (D-Prince George's), vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and chief sponsor of the Roper committee's proposed legislation. "This seems to be growing, and picking up steam every day."
In other jurisdictions, the rape, murder and mutilation of Stephanie Roper last April, and subsequent decisions by jury and judge, still provoke outrage.
"I've never seen a community response like this one," said Anne Arrundel state's attorney Warren B. Duckett Jr. Among his constituents, he said, "the death penalty is discussed a lot."
In Baltimore City's East Side, "the initial reaction was one of disbelief," said Del. American Joe Miedusiewski. In Wicomoco County, on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, Del. Lewis R. Riley said "I think you'll find a lot of support here on the Eastern Shore" for the Roper committee's proposed legislation.
What the politicians think is important. If the bills filed yesterday are passed into law next year, Marylanders will find themselves with some of the toughest violent-crime legislation in the country:
* All participants and conspirators in a first-degree murder would be liable for the Maryland gas chamber, not just the "trigger-man."
* The number of "mitigating" factors a jury could consider in deciding between the death sentence and life imprisonment would be substantially reduced, and the number of "aggravating" factors would be increased.
* A life sentence would mean absolutely no chance of release -- ever.
* The state's parole commission would be abolished, and criminals convicted of any crime would have litle chance of parole. A "prisoner review board" could recommend parole to the governor "on exceptional cases only."
* Victim impact statements would be read to the judge and jury if the victim or the victim's family so requested.
* The state could appeal a sentence it thought too lenient. Currently, only the defendant has the right to appeal.
* A jury deciding between life imprisonment and the death penalty would be permitted to recommend to the judge a death sentence, if it could not reach a unanimous opinion.
Additional legislation that would establish new mandatory sentences for violent crimes is being drafted by the Stephanie Roper Committee.
Wolfgang said last week he believes that some of the legislation, especially mandatory sentencing and life imprisonment with no chance of release, has "an excellent chance" of being enacted. Other proposals, such as abolishing the parole commission and allowing juries to recommend a death sentence without reaching a unanimous decision, "will be tough" to get passed, he said.
State Senator T.V. (Mike) Miller (D-Prince George's), who is expected to be named head of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that if he is chairman, "I can state positively and unequivocably that it will pass the committee. . . . What they are seeking is not unreasonable. The public is outraged, not only in Prince George's but throughout the state."
The Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative law group that supports the death penalty, has received hundreds of complaints about Circuit Court Judge Walter R. Haile's decision to make the two life sentences concurrent rather than consecutive, said Michael McDonald, director of the foundation's Court Watch program.
McDonald said his group has filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities to review the sentencing by Haile, who so far has refused to comment.
"We feel that, given the immense public reaction, the outcry, to the sentencing decision, he owes the community an explanation," McDonald said.
But some people, most of whom said outrage is justified, argued that the public's reaction to the Roper case has been too simplistic, and ignores practical considerations ranging from human nature to the Constitution of the United States.
E. Allen Shepherd, the Upper Marlboro lawyer who was one of two appointed to defend Jones, said people have overreacted. He said he still receives "unpleasant" phone calls from people angry with the outcome of the trial.
Shepherd said he "anticipated" that Circuit Court Judge Walter R. Haile would give Jones consecutive, rather than concurrent, life sentences, but argued that it really made no difference: "As a practical matter, the guy will spend the rest of his life in jail. . . . It doesn't mean they are going to give him parole. All that does is scare people."
Miedusiewski disagrees that talk of possible early parole is irrelevant. "That seems to be the problem . . . the possibility of parole," he said. "Twelve years from now, you don't know who will be on the parole board. And who will remember? The impact won't be there."
But Miedusiewski added that although the popular outrage is justified, the demand for a quick-fix legislative solution may fall flat on its face.
"People have been telling me that we should have a stricter death penalty," he said. "I keep telling them that we did, but it was ruled unconstitutional. They don't understand it." Even Wolfgang agreed that some of his proposed legislation may be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Darlene Perry, a public defender in Prince George's County, said the court system could not handle an increase in death sentence cases unless taxpayers were willing to give government the huge sums of money it would take. "It costs more to more to try someone and put them to death than house them for life," she said.
Like others who have said the public reaction to the Roper case has sidestepped practical difficulties, Perry argues that moral questions surrounding capital punishment are not the issue here. Capital punishment is legal in Maryland and in the rest of the country; the question here is one of how and when it will be used.
Anne Arundel state's attorney Duckett said he is "very, very active in seeking the death penalty," and will press forward even if armed with just one "aggravating circumstance." Yet he added that the public, even when it calls for the death penalty to be used, forgets the reluctance of average men and women, sitting on a jury, to send someone to the gas chamber.
"Some of those people who are most critical, you put those same people on the jury where they are placed in a position of deciding life and death and they won't pass the death sentence," he said.
C. Clarke Raley, the St. Mary's state's attorney who prosecuted Jones and asked for the death sentence, agreed with Duckett. The form presented to a jury deciding on a death sentence -- it reads "We unanimously impose the sentence of (life or death)" -- is stated so starkly that most juries balk, he said. "That form turns into a death warrant, and I think most jurors have a great deal of difficulty signing a death warrant."
On the other hand, Raley complained that he was not allowed to tell the Jones case jury that a life sentence did not necessarily mean the killers would spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Like thousands of others, Raley said, he is still trying to make sense of what happened when the murderers of Stephanie Ann Roper were brought to trial.
"Some people say that Haile misspoke" when he imposed concurrent life sentences, he said. "I don't believe that. Haile has been on the bench 19 years. Haile had a reputation for being tough. That's what everybody said who knew him."
"I've gone over this case again and again, and so have my assistants," he added. "What else could we have done in this case? There wasn't anything -- nothing that I was able to think of."