The last, desperate hope of defense attorneys is that the victim is too scared or too lazy to show up in court. You can see attorneys scanning corridor crowds in the Prince George's County courthouse, hoping the prosecutor will be forced to abandon the case.

From a fourth-floor office in the Upper Marlboro courthouse, the 27-year-old chief of the State's Attorney's Victim/Witness Assistance Unit tries to foil such plans.

"Victims are what it's all about," Carol A. Hess said. "It happened to them." She along with her staff of nine keep tabs on thousands of victims and prosecution witnesses each month, lets them know how the cases are proceeding and, most important of all, gets them to court at the right time.

Hess, who wrote a paper on victims as a University of Maryland law enforcement student before coming to the unit in 1979, knows from study, experience and the lawyers who work around her that more cases are dropped because victims fail to appear in court than for any other cause.

"A lot of people want to forget what happened," she said. "They have more or less gotten over this" and the trial "is like reenacting a crime all over again."

Some of the fears are worries about retaliation from the accused. "Fear of retaliation is very prevalent," she said. "Fortunately, actual retaliation is not a problem. The fear of it is."

Others just "don't want to get involved," she said. "People are nervous about going to court. They don't know why they were necessary. They saw so little. They didn't realize they were part of a larger picture."

What's more, victims often try to leave their problems behind: "Phone numbers become unpublished; people change jobs or move." Hess and her staff of nine try to reach all victims and possible witnesses after a defendant is indicted and to keep in contact every step of the way.

Day after day, more than a thousand times a month, she and her assistants guide the raped, the beaten and the robbed through hearings and trials, keeping them calm and confident and ensuring they are not trampled by the steady, impersonal march of justice.

"We certainly don't tell them what to say or put words in their mouths, but we help them review their statements and get additional information," Hess said. "We go over the basic rules: You can't chew gum, speak into the microphone, the chair is nailed to the floor so don't try to slide it forward."

For Hess, the object is to get victims through sometimes harrowing court trials unscathed. For prosecutors, the victim/witness unit prepares the best witnesses possible.

"A lot of times, victims are better prepared, more interested and willing to assist because someone has been in touch with them," Hess said. "They are more satisfied with the criminal justice system, and they make better witnesses."

Prosecutor David M. Simpson said the unit often turns cases that are only "makeable" into "dead certain." Often faced with five or six trials a day, he said, "there's no way in the world I am going to keep track of all those witnesses. . . . You really don't have time to talk to all those people."

Individual prosecutors often have up to 60 cases awaiting their attention, which means several hundred witnesses.

When State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. successfully prosecuted Harlow Brian Sails for the slaying of a county police officer earlier this year, for instance, Hess and her staff had more than 100 state witnesses summoned, prepared to testify and kept informed of each of many delays.

"She doesn't make the job of a defense attorney any easier," said William J. Parker Jr., an Upper Marlboro defense attorney. "It makes the state's position stronger, and it also frees their attorneys" to concentrate on winning their cases.

Parker, who was the first chief of the unit when it opened in 1977, has calculated it saves the county about $100,000 in police overtime alone, by keeping officers informed of precisely when they need to appear in court.

More importantly, he said, it helps make the experience of a victim witness less traumatic. "They've already been victims once," he said. "They don't need to be victims again."