Without victim, there's no case

Dan Rodricks

November 09, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

The day he was paroled, he broke into Betty's apartment. He came in through a window in the bathroom.

She was in the kitchen. He grabbed her. He demanded money. He pulled her clothes off. He raped her. He tied her hands and feet together. He stuck a rag in her mouth. He threw her across a bed and beat her with a leather belt. He kicked her.

One day, he soaked Betty with lighter fluid and threatened to set her on fire. That's what it says in the original police report.

Other documents say John -- that's the defendant's name -- held his former girlfriend captive for two weeks. If she left the apartment, he'd be right at her side. From May 14 until May 29, Betty was a prisoner in her own apartment. The apartment was on Windsor Mill Road.

Remarkably, John took Betty with him to report to his parole agent at the end of May. The two of them went to an office on Guilford Avenue.

During an interview, a parole agent named Frances Shearrin-Harrid became suspicious. Betty was too quiet, too shy. John wouldn't let her speak. Then Shearrin-Harrid saw what she thought were rope burns around Betty's wrists, bruises around her neck.

The parole officer pulled Betty aside. Betty told her the whole story.

John was arrested that afternoon at Betty's apartment. Police found him hiding in the bathroom. He was charged with first-degree rape, assault with intent to murder, robbery and false imprisonment. He was held without bail in City Jail. That's where he stayed.

Until yesterday.

The case against this guy rested with the victim. She was the most important witness. After Betty confided in Shearrin-Harrid, the parole agent helped her find shelter. She stayed with her for hours. She talked with her. She and others tried to assure her that, by pressing charges against John, she'd be doing the right thing.

But by the end of June, Betty had changed her mind.

Motivated by either fear of some strange sympathy for the man who had terrorized her, Betty wrote a letter to the Baltimore Circuit Court asking that the charges be dropped. The letter, part of the court record now, was astonishing.

Betty wasn't attacked, she said. "We were fussing." The police and the parole officer have "stretched this out of shape."

John "did not try to rape me or kill me in any way or form, nor did he commit any act of false imprisonment (like tying me up or holding me against my will). . . . The charges are false. I never said John did this."

She wrote this almost exactly one month after she showed up at the parole office.

Wanda Robinson, the prosecutor in the case, was surprised, to put it mildly.

Betty had been reluctant to testify, but the June 30 letter went beyond mere reluctance to a total retraction of everything she had told the police. What was happening? Had Betty been threatened by John, or John's friends or relatives? Had Betty become trapped in an emotional jungle? Could she still be in love with a man who had raped her and held her prisoner for two weeks?

The prosecutor made contact with Betty, and somehow she was able to convince her to testify. By then, Betty had moved out of state. The prosecutor knew where she lived, but kept Betty's address out of the court file.

As the trial date approached, Robinson kept in touch. She spoke with Betty by telephone, sent her letters. She sent her a summons to appear yesterday morning. Until a week ago, she had no reason to believe that Betty would not appear to testify. Then, a letter to Betty from the State's Attorney's Office, postmarked Nov. 1, came back. It was marked "returned to sender." A notation on the envelope indicated that Betty's home was now vacant.

Yesterday morning, John came to court for trial.

Betty didn't.

The second page of the manila file folder bears the letters, "FTA." That means "Failure to Appear" and, though it sometimes refers to a defendant, in this case it referred to the victim. There was no case without the victim. So the case was placed on the inactive docket, on the condition that it be reopened "if defendant had role in victim's FTA." That means the state can resume prosecution if it shows that John in some way caused Betty's absence.

The last notation on the case folder was another abbreviation. I asked a court clerk to tell me what it meant. "Release filed," she said. That means John is on the street today.

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