Roberta Roper wishes every day that she could retire.
But at 62, she's busier than ever. Last week, she spent one day on Capitol Hill lobbying for a national crime victims assistance law. She spent the next day in Annapolis, where Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) signed into law four bills that she had supported on behalf of crime victims.
It has been 17 years since Roper started her campaign for victims rights. It was 1982, and she was a homemaker and mother whose life had been turned upside down by the brutal murder of her 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie. During the pain and anguish of burying her child, Roper, supported by her husband, Vincent, and a host of friends and relatives, discovered that the legal system often is more kind to criminals than to victims and the loved ones they leave behind.
So she founded the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation and dedicated her life to victims and their families. She has since spent countless hours lobbying law enforcement officials and lawmakers locally and nationally.
Yesterday, her organization, based in Upper Marlboro, was awarded a $10,000 grant in honor of victims of another heinous crime: the slaying of three employees at a Starbucks coffee shop in Georgetown in July 1997.
"For years, the Stephanie Roper Foundation has been effectively meeting the needs of victims and survivors of violent crime through a comprehensive array of services," said Terry Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which administers the Starbucks Memorial Fund grants to nonprofits working for victims rights and crime prevention. "We are pleased that the Starbucks Memorial Fund grant to the foundation will enable a new counseling program to meet a largely unmet need, giving low-income families the support to take that first step toward recovery."
Roper, who has four grown children and two grandchildren, works without pay to oversee the committee and foundation, which operate on an annual budget of about $100,000, with a paid staff of five and dozens of volunteers. Her husband acts as unpaid chairman of the board. The organization files legal documents on behalf of crime victims and survivors and attends court proceedings in support of the aggrieved.
She proudly accepts the title of spokeswoman for victims rights in Maryland and for the victims silenced by violence.
"I am proud to be their voice. I'm proud to fight for the legitimate rights of crime victims, to see them treated with dignity and compassion," Roper said.
If you'd asked Roberta Roper in early 1982 what she'd be doing now, she'd have told you teaching art and spending time with her family.
She was living with her five children and husband, a Navy officer, in Croom when her life changed forever. It was a Friday, April 2, and her daughter Stephanie came home from Frostburg State College in Western Maryland for a visit with the family.
Roper loved all her children, but Stephanie, the oldest, held a special place in her heart. Beautiful, graceful and self-confident at 22, Stephanie was a church youth group leader and aspiring artist who was full of plans for her postgraduate future.
That first night home, she and a friend had drinks at a popular Foggy Bottom club, danced and caught up on the latest news in their lives.
Stephanie initially had planned to spend the night at her friend's but headed for home instead. At some point, her car ran off the road, hit a tree stump and stalled. As she sat in the car, two men she believed were Samaritans approached and offered to give her a ride back to her friend's house. Instead of dropping her off, the two men, Jack Ronald Jones, 26, and Jerry Lee Beatty, 17, killed her. Stephanie's body was found nine days later. She had been raped and shot with a .22-caliber rifle. Her skull had been fractured with a chain, and her body had been set on fire.
Both defendants confessed shortly after their arrests. Beatty turned state's evidence and blamed much of the crime on Jones, a hard-drinking unemployed maintenance man with a fondness for marijuana laced with violence-inducing PCP.
The separate trials, held in Baltimore County because of concerns about pretrial publicity, were the first experiences Roper had with courtrooms. She was treated as an uninvolved observer, barred from hearing most of the testimony because she had been called as a witness and not permitted to tell the jury about the impact of her daughter's death on the Roper family. A judge said it was "irrelevant."
Both men were sentenced to prison for murder, kidnapping and rape; they will be eligible for parole in 2006. Roper emerged from the ordeal determined to change a system that she felt treated victims and those who love them with indifference or contempt.
The hardest part of the whole experience, she said, was seeing what the crime did to her other children--then 18, 17, 15 and 10--how it robbed them of their youth and sense of security and left them questioning everything.
"Everything we had taught our children to believe in, God, government, the ability of law enforcement to protect them, came into question," Roper said. "Even with the trauma that their sister was exposed to and our pain and suffering, the most difficult thing to explain to them was that we had no rights and the system we had taught them to respect was to blame."
To help future crime victims, the Roper Committee began pushing for new laws. The biggest victory came in 1994 with the passage of the Maryland Constitutional Amendment for Crime Victims Rights, which entitles victims to "be notified of, to attend and to be heard at a criminal justice proceeding," according to a Roper Committee brochure. Victims also have the right to be notified of any hearings related to the defendant.
The goal of the committee is to work within the legal system to secure rights for crime victims, to see that those rights are implemented, to raise public awareness about crime victims issues and to advocate a federal constitutional amendment for crime victims.
The foundation provides support groups for victims and their loved ones, referrals for counseling, speakers and companion volunteers for crime victims going through the legal process.
The organization publishes a monthly newsletter, and dozens of brochures geared to educating crime victims about their rights. It recently published a training manual about victims rights that is used to educate lawyers.
"My life has been forever changed," Roper said. "When you have worked as hard as I have to establish something, you don't just turn the reins over. . . .[The organization] bears my daughter's name, and I will always strive to make sure that it reflects the highest possible standard."
And for others like her and their loved ones.
CAPTION: Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) signs victims rights legislation in Annapolis as Roberta Roper, far left, witnesses the enactment. Roper started her victims rights campaign 17 years ago after her 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was slain.