Roberta Roper's victory for victims is personal FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHTS CAUSE

February 28, 1994|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Sun Staff Writer

If you're a victim of a violent crime the way Roberta Roper was a dozen years ago, the world will grant you a moment to bury your murdered daughter. It will even allow you to rail against a legal system that shrugged at your desperate need to know what happened and barred you from the trial of her killers.

But when it's over, this hard old world clearly expects you to heal up and go on. If you don't, you're viewed suspiciously: an emotional mother out for revenge.

Of course, you never really heal. You're just different. Why? Because there's a hole in your life, that's why.

And so a few days ago, a determined Roberta Roper, considerably different from the contented Prince George's County art teacher she was in 1982, moves briskly along the carpeted corridor of the House of Delegates office building in Annapolis, seeking votes.

She looks tired this morning, distracted. This is perhaps the most important day of her life since the deep, dark hole opened that spring day in 1982 when the body of her daughter Stephanie was found. The 22-year-old college senior, home from Frostburg State for a visit, had been missing for 10 days. When found, she had been tortured, raped, shot in the head, mutilated and then set on fire.

Now, all these years later, the state Senate and House are set to cast final votes on a constitutional amendment giving victims like Mrs. Roper an official standing in the Maryland legal system -- a standing that more than two dozen victims' rights laws, all passed with the dogged backing of Mrs. Roper and the Stephanie Roper Committee, have not quite nailed down.

"Here it's hurry up and wait," she sighs as schools of frenzied delegates flow past in each direction. "One day we were here until midnight waiting for meetings to break up so we could talk to people about victims' rights. You have no control here."

The need for control

Control, after all, is at the heart of this woman's motivation.

"When you become a crime victim, all the controls in your life are gone. But letting victims make choices returns some of that control."

These are familiar arguments, words she has repeated to delegates and senators and governors and prosecutors and judges for a dozen years.

"Do you want to see the photos of the body? Do you want to be in the courtroom and hear the medical examiner's testimony? Do you want to give a victim's impact statement? If you're going to bring some finality to a dreadful chapter in your life, you have to have the opportunity to make those choices."

She pauses, eyes a delegate coming toward her, a man she will pin against the wall momentarily to ask if his support for today's bill is secure.

"You can deal with painful truths, but what you can't deal with are unanswered questions," she says. "The most difficult things to deal with are the unknown."

In her battle against unknowns, she has been confronting legislators in these corridors since October of 1982 -- only two weeks after her daughter's killers were convicted of murder and sentenced to life terms. Incorporating The Stephanie Roper Committee on behalf of crime victims, she says, saved her.

"I don't know that I could have survived otherwise."

For a couple of years, she continued to teach art at St. Ambrose School in Prince George's County, working for the Roper Committee in her spare hours. "One day, though, I told the school they could always get another good art teacher, but there wasn't anybody else to do what I had to do."

Today, the committee and companion Stephanie Roper Foundation occupy an office over a bank in Upper Marlboro. The committee pushes victims' rights legislation and has successfully backed more than 30 pieces of legislation; the foundation helps other survivors of violent crimes find their way through the legal system.

Both groups are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, including Mrs. Roper, who can be found at the office every day -- except during the legislative season, when she spends much of her time in Annapolis.

She is a familiar sight, this woman with green eyes, known to friends as Robbie. Today her suit is lavender, her shoulder bag black. Over the years she has carefully selected her tan pumps for their comfort in negotiating the ice during her General Assembly maneuvers.

"I've had to bite my tongue many times and say the cup is half full, not half empty," she says of her long quest.

"I've learned that negative advocacy never gets you anywhere. You must maintain your focus and vision and put the emphasis on the positive."

That emphasis has attracted a large following of admirers, including Ted Criswell, who has been a Roper Committee supporter since his wife was murdered in 1990 in Crofton.

"When I think of Robbie, I think of a bulldog that gets hold of a coat and you can't shake it off," he smiles. "Yet in spite of that, they like her here in Annapolis. She has always done this with dignity and grace."

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