Year's first murder victim was more than a statistic

WILEY A. HALL

December 31, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

Theresa Charlene Rozzell lived in the Villa Ridge apartmen complex in Northwest Baltimore. The building in which she lived and several adjoining ones are deserted now, boarded up and abandoned -- as if her violent death last January all but killed the neighborhood.

We would like to believe that one death could have such an impact, that no one is just a statistic, that each life is precious and individual and that whenever one of us dies a violent death, all of us are diminished.

Indeed, somewhere there must be people who knew the real Theresa Rozzell, who cherish her memory and hold it close. Somewhere, she is a loved one, not a statistic.

I went searching for the real Theresa Rozzell, 30, just after dawn on Jan. 1, when she became the first homicide victim of 1992, the first of what became a record year of slaughter in Baltimore. And I went searching for her again yesterday as this most violent of years drew close to its end.

But Theresa Rozzell's death went all but unnoticed by the rest of us. Her family could not be reached and they were not called as witnesses during the trial of her assailant. Her neighbors had all moved away, leaving her last place of residence as bleak and deserted as a ghost town. Prosecutors did not file a victim's impact statement with the court, which is the formal procedure for remembering a victim during a trial.

All we have then is a few platitudes from her neighbors last year, police pictures of her blood-stained body as it was when they found it sprawled on her living room sofa, and the portrait of the victim as it emerged in court, a picture of her as her killer and his cohorts saw her.

This is perhaps the most tragic aspect of violent crime, that unless we are careful we end up seeing the victim through the distorted eyes of the killer.

Police described Theresa Rozzell as a slender woman. They said she was unemployed and the mother of a little boy, age undetermined.

"Theresa had a beautiful personality," one neighbor told me last January. "She was pleasant all the time. She never had anything bad to say about anybody."

Her killer had a different perspective.

Police claimed a small-time drug dealer decided last New Year's Eve to host a party for some of his favorite customers and workers. The dealer arranged for a number of women to provide sexual favors in exchange for drugs. Theresa Rozzell allegedly was one of the women. But when the victim, according to testimony, refused to do as promised, the dealer's enforcer, Damone D. Scott, 19, became enraged and shot her five times.

"Theresa was involved in some things I'm sure she was not proud of," said the prosecutor during his summation at the end of Scott's three-day trial in June. And that was pretty much the nicest thing said about the victim during the proceedings. In most of the testimony, witnesses called her a "party girl" or a "slut" or cursed her, using Jamaican slang.

A much more wholesome picture of the defendant emerged. His high school football coach described him as "one of the most courageous and personable young men. . .

"I consider Damone a fine role model," the coach continued. "If I had a son, I would want him to be like Damone."

An elderly couple said, "because of Damone's gentleness and love for people, it is extremely difficult for us to believe he would hurt anyone, let alone murder them."

And his grandmother acknowledged that he "carried a lot of monkeys on his back," but had good grades in school and dreamed of going to college on a football scholarship.

"Sir," said Scott after he was convicted of first-degree murder and a handgun violation, "I address you as a young man who has been caught up in the problems of our society today. All I ask of you is to give me mercy."

Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Smith sentenced Scott to life plus 20 years. Scott has appealed.

Just as Scott's defenders have wholesome memories of him, I am certain that members of Theresa Rozzell's family have similar memories of the first homicide victim of 1992 than the killer's view that remains in our official records.

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