Laura Rogers remembers reaching under the bed where her husband slept, groping for the shotgun. She had been awake all night.
She remembers carrying the 20-gauge into the living room, where she had been ignoring the television for hours. She snapped it open, slipped a shell into its chamber. Back in the bedroom, she saw her 43-year-old husband, Walter Rogers, asleep on his right side.
The sun was not yet up.
Laura Rogers does not remember holding the shotgun less than a foot from her husband's face, aiming it toward his left eye. She does not remember pulling the trigger.
"I remember hearing the gun go off, and running, and saying, 'What the hell have I done?' " she recalled in an interview this week.
Six months after she killed her husband, Laura Rogers, 36, was released Tuesday from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center.
She had been charged with first-degree murder, an offense punishable by life in prison, but she had pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner sentenced her to 10 years in prison, the maximum term for that offense, but suspended all but the 198 days she already had spent in jail since her arrest. Hackner said he was convinced by a diagnosis that she suffered from battered spouse syndrome. And he called her husband, the victim, "a horrible human being."
The state did not oppose the outcome. This was a murder case that prosecutors never wanted to put in front of a jury.
It's an old story: a self-described battered wife killing the man she says tormented her. Laura Rogers was by no means the first woman to end years of alleged abuse by squeezing a trigger in the night. But seldom does the justice system agree that the husband probably had it coming. Seldom does the system effectively excuse a homicide and send the wife home.
This was no ordinary case, though.
For one thing, there was the psychological well-being of a 17-year-old girl to think about.
And there was the videotape.
The horrible videotape.
A Death in the Family
Laura Rogers described the slaying and the circumstances surrounding it in an interview Wednesday, the day after she got out of jail. As she spoke, she sat at a long conference table in the office of her attorney, Clarke F. Ahlers, her hands clasped in front of her.
With her straight brown hair freshly styled after her jail stay, she wore blue sweat pants and a blue sweat shirt with a red heart on the chest. On her right wrist is a tattoo of a purple rose. She spoke mostly in even tones, though at one point she fell into tears, as she recounted her life and her relationship with Walter Rogers before she picked up the shotgun.
"As soon as it went off, I laid it on the floor," she said of the shotgun she fired early in the morning on the last Saturday in April.
The blast awoke her daughter, then 16, and her young son, children from a previous marriage. Rogers said she quickly ushered them back into their beds, telling them she did not know what had happened.
She then summoned police to their secluded apartment, in the back of an office building on a dead-end road in an industrial park in Laurel, in western Anne Arundel County.
The first patrol officers to arrive thought it was a suicide, Rogers and Ahlers said, a belief she did not discourage. But detectives were skeptical almost immediately.
Two days later, in an apparent effort to protect her mother, Laura Rogers's 16-year-old daughter confessed to the slaying. Detectives, however, realized that the girl could not have been responsible: She did not know how to load the shotgun. They told Laura Rogers what the girl had said, and Rogers quickly admitted that she had pulled the trigger.
She said Wednesday that "taking a human being's life is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life." But she said she felt she could "breathe again" for the first time in years. She said that to understand her situation -- the "terror and fear" that she and her family endured -- was to understand that she had no other choice.
Good Times Gone Bad
She met Walter Rogers 12 years ago, at a Clint Black concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. Both had been married before. She considered him attractive, charming, a family man who accepted that she had two children.
"He always liked to say it was love at first sight," Laura Rogers said. "I never believed in it. I'd been through one bad marriage, so I was very skeptical. But he knew how to charm me."
They moved in together, into her parents' home, seven months later. Soon, he proposed, kneeling in a Pizza Hut. They were married less than two years after they met.
"In the beginning, it was wonderful," she said. "We got along wonderful. He treated me wonderful until three years into the marriage.
"The last six years, I lived in terror and fear."
She said he became emotionally abusive and controlling. The family moved a half-dozen times in a decade, limiting her ability to meet people. She was not permitted to have friends or, most of the time, to work.
"I went through a lot of emotional changes, being with him," she said. "I mean, physically, yes, [abuse] did happen. It didn't happen numerous times, but, yes, there was some physical abuse. A lot of times, the emotional [abuse] leaves a deeper scar."
She said she felt she could not leave. "I knew he would never let me, and if I got away, he would find me," she said. "I lived fearful of harm to me and my children every day."
In 2000, her daughter complained that Walter Rogers had run his hand across her chest. The police in Mississippi, where they were living, investigated. Walter Rogers was charged with a crime. But the case was dismissed.
Then, in May 2003, her daughter told officials at her Anne Arundel school that her stepfather was abusing her sexually. Investigators went to the Rogers home that day. Despite the abuse that Laura Rogers now says she was enduring, she could not imagine at the time that her husband would abuse her daughter.
"Walter was very convincing," she said. "He convinced me, he convinced social services, the police. He convinced everyone that he had done nothing and that basically he was a saint."
So persuasive was he that the girl was prosecuted for filing a false police report. She was convicted in Anne Arundel County juvenile court.
In an interview with the authorities, Walter Rogers wept and said his stepdaughter was accusing him falsely. He said she had lied about the same thing before, in Mississippi, and said his "world is caving in. Health problems, just getting by. . . . I didn't do this."
The teenage girl's conviction was finally vacated Wednesday afternoon. By then, the evidence in support of her claims was irrefutable.
A Weapon and a Motive
On April 23, while her clothes spun in a dryer at a laundromat, Laura Rogers walked into a Wal-Mart not far from her home and bought the shotgun. She said her husband had instructed her to buy it, saying he was concerned about thefts in their isolated neighborhood.
Her 16-year-old daughter was seven months pregnant at the time. Laura Rogers said she believed that the father was a boy from the girl's school.
About 9 that evening, the girl told her mother where to find the evidence that her claims of sexual abuse were true. There was a videotape, she said, in Walter Rogers's armoire. She told her mother to look behind his collection of Playboy magazines.
The family was planning a trip to North Carolina. That night, as Walter Rogers, a laborer, was securing his tools in the yard and preparing for their trip, Laura Rogers retrieved the tape. In the bedroom, she slipped it into a video camera and watched as much of it as she could bear on the camcorder's tiny screen.
The images were of Walter Rogers engaged in a variety of sex acts with the girl.
As she watched, Laura Rogers said, she went numb. "I'm not sure what happened," she recalled. "I kind of went into a little shell."
But she said she knew this: "When I saw that videotape, he was never going to harm my daughter again. At that point, I knew that he was doing it, and there was no way for him to convince me otherwise."
Her daughter, she knew then, had been telling the truth. And her husband had raped her daughter repeatedly, lied about it, had the girl prosecuted and continued to abuse her. After she turned off the tape, she recalled, Walter Rogers came back inside. He told her to be sure to pack enough for a week's trip.
Laura Rogers said she felt disgust but did not confront him.
"Okay," she told him.
Hours later, before the sun came up, she stepped toward the bedroom door. She opened it and, in the light that crept in from the living room, reached under the bed for the shotgun.
On Tuesday, Judge Hackner said in court that a diagnosis of battered spouse syndrome warranted Laura Rogers's release. But he made that decision only after viewing the videotape in his chambers, and after hearing defense attorney Ahlers describe Walter Rogers as "a person who took a sick and sadistic pleasure in killing the spirit of other people."
Prosecutors said they agreed to the plea deal partly to spare Laura Rogers's daughter, now 17, the emotional ordeal of having to testify about the abuse she suffered. Her baby, a boy, was born over the summer and put up for adoption. DNA tests proved that Walter Rogers was the father.
The jailhouse door opened about 6 p.m. Tuesday, and Laura Rogers stepped free. Reflecting later on what she had seen on the tiny camcorder screen, she said she did what she had to do.
"When I saw this man horribly violating my daughter, I couldn't let it continue," she said. "I couldn't change the past. But, damn, I could change the future."