An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive
How To Search This Transcript:
Seymour: Anne, Justice Solutions, interviewing Roberta Roper.
Roper: Roberta Roper, and the name is spelled R-O-B-E-R-T-A, R-O-P-E-R.
Seymour: And your title would be?
Roper: I am currently the Chair of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, formally the Executive Director and Founder of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation.
Seymour: Roberta, thank you for coming and participating. I want to start out by asking why and how did you first get involved in the crime victims' movement?
Roper: That's very simple. Our oldest child, our daughter Stephanie, who was kidnaped, raped and murdered in 1982, and even beyond the terrible... of suffering of our child and of the grief and loss we sustained was our treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.
Seymour: '82? So it just was 20...
Roper: Twenty-one years coming up. That's right, 20 year anniversary.
Seymour: I was there.
Roper: Yes, you were there.
Seymour: Hello. Okay, I'm sorry. Twenty years ago when you started this Stephanie Roper Foundation, Roberta, can you describe the field of victims' rights and services but also if you will the context of the era?
Roper: A virtual wasteland. I think the President's Task Force of Crime... for Crime Victims, you know, said it best. Victims had little or no role to play if they were fortunate enough to survive the crime they served as good witnesses, so the state might win its case, but we were astounded and appalled to find that there were no rights for crime victims in our states... our state. There were no services. We were told that, you know, we were literally on our own and just astonished at the... that we were outsiders.
Seymour: In your trial, do you mind talking about...
Roper: Oh, not at all.
Seymour: ... the trial. Can you just give some examples of some of the things that maybe would be different today?
Roper: Black and white. We... well, our daughter was murdered in one county but the crimes began in two others. She was kidnaped in Prince George's County, raped in that county, taken to a second county, eventually taken to a third county, so the third county had jurisdiction and we went down... attended... wanted to attend and be part of every proceeding, and our first brush with reality was uh, a meeting with the prosecutor, and when I asked if he had a program of victim assistance, he laughed and said, "Well, I guess that's me."
And it was abundantly clear that anything we wanted to know, any role we had to play would be our responsibility. We accepted that but there were frequent times when I journeyed an hour and half to this location for what was billed as a hearing, a preliminary hearing, only to discover it had been postponed and nobody had bother to call. We were very naive. I had never even been in a traffic court in 1982. We were determined to learn as much about the process, the criminal justice system as possible, so we held a number of public meetings inviting our legislators, our local legislators and the prosecutor, not to talk about the case, but to talk about the process.
And he warned us, the prosecutor warned us that defense attorneys were known to subpoena victims of their... and their families not in an effort to have them testify at trial, but to use the rule on witnesses to exclude them from being in the courtroom. What he never explained is this... that... that could happen if the State subpoenaed the family of the victim and, of course, that's what happened. We were so naive. We believed that if we took steps to inform the court, for instance, that a number of our friends were going to support us at trial that it was a courteous thing to do.
We learned that by doing that we were assigned to the smallest courtroom in Baltimore County where the trial was removed because it ended up being a capital trial, and we ended up being the first witnesses for the State, had nothing of real value to offer the court. The only thing we could do was really set the stage to recall the last family meal we shared with our daughter, Stephanie, that she drove a family car, and that was it. No one asked if there was cause for us to be excluded, but the rule on witnesses imposed.
The prosecutor never advocated for our right to remain in the courtroom. The judge never questioned whether there was a reason to remove us, but for six and a half weeks, I stood outside a courtroom door literally with my nose pressed against the pane of glass attempting to see and hear what was happening. What I heard and saw were people emerging at... when breaks occurred and because this case in 1982 was seen as one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in our state, attracted a lot of public attention.
People who wanted to just be in the courtroom, and I heard them questioning what Stephanie was doing there at that time of the night. What was she wearing? How many drinks had she had? And I stood there appalled with the... one of the detectives who had been on the case, and I said, "You know, if Stephanie had been a prostitute or a homeless person, it wouldn't of mattered. She hadn't anything wrong." But she wasn't any of those things, but it was this leap to judgment in the absence of the victim and the victim's voice was to blame her.
The legislator who eventually became one of the chief sponsors of our Bills at one of those earlier meetings said to me, "Homicides are the easiest to prosecute uh... or the easiest to defend," he said, and I said, "Why?" I said, "There is an abundance of evidence," and he said, "It's, they're easy. There's no one there to speak for the victim." So for six and a half weeks we were excluded from the trial. We heard the defense successfully argue that the jury should not see a photograph of Stephanie, that it was inflammatory.
There were many things that occurred throughout the trial that truly upset us. We had learned that the Maryland legislature that year had passed what was being proclaimed as the first victims' right to victim impact statements at sentencing. My husband, Vince, and I obtained a copy of the law from the sponsor, gave it to the prosecutor believing that as an attorney he would know how the law should be im... applied. The prosecutor was a very aggressive, competent man. He had few people skills in terms of keeping us informed of what was happening, and at one of these... one of the breaks as we neared the guilt/innocence phase of the trial of the principal defendant, I said to him, "Well, what about the victim impact statement?"
And he said, "Well, when we return after the lunch break, you're gonna be the victim impact statement," and I said, "I don't know what you mean." And he said, "Well, the court knows nothing about who Stephanie was, what this crime's impact was to your family or to your community." I had prepared nothing. We had children sitting in the courtroom. I was reluctant to speak for them without their permission. (coughs) Excuse me. And he said, "It's really critical.
'They will never know who Stephanie is," and of course, as soon as I took the stand, immediately the defense objected on the grounds that anything I had to say was emotional, irrelevant, and probable cause for a reversal on an appeal, and we were dismissed in silence once again. (coughing -- takes drink)
Seymour: Roberta, thinking about your pioneering area of victim assistance starting a foundation, what was the greatest challenge that you and Vince and your colleagues faced in affecting change?
Roper: Achieving credibility. I was characterized as an emotional mother who wanted revenge. Syndicated columnists wrote articles about us that... saying that Stephanie was once a beautiful young woman and now she was the name of no begotten cause and that her parents were either exploited by people or had a knack for public relations. And when I called the author of this column and I said, "Are you a parent?" And he did what many people do when you ask them that, he made this knee-jerk reaction, "Well, if it had happened to my child, I would have."
And I said, "But we're not doing it. We're not suggesting to take the law... that anyone should take the law into their own hands. Have you seen the Bills that we have proposed?" "No." And it was very, very difficult to not to be distracted from our... not to become what our opponents were characterizing us as and to maintain focus. But to the credit of everyone we'd been involved in uh, we were able to maintain a proper focus, to always see the cup half full, not half empty. And anyone who was involved in the legislative process knows it is about compromises, always accepting less than what you deserve and need, not resorting to negative advocacy.
It's very tempting when you know you... your... your proposal is reasonable, rational, right, when you present the evidence, when you've shown what other states have achieved, when you've shown that this will improve the way the criminal justice treatment... treat... system treats everyone. But, you know, we were... I was told that I was gonna make a victim of the Constitution. We were told we were creating a monster. I mean, there... they went on and on.
So achieving credibility and maintaining a vision and not departing from that vision was the greatest challenge. It was also our greatest achievement.
Seymour: What were some of the secrets and tactics and strategies that you all employed that were successful?
Roper: I I call them the "three P's" -- passion, perseverance, and patience. And I think those three qualities are demonstrated in abundance, especially by the grassroots advocacy arena. Not to diminish the role of others in the field who are not direct victims or survivors of crime, but those who do walk that path bring to it qualities that are, cannot be measured, and the patience and the... and being able to maintain the vision is sustained by the passion and the perseverance.
Seymour: That's great. Roberta, what were some of the failures, if you think there have been failures, in the past what... for you, 20 years?
Roper: I wouldn't characterize our experience as... as one of failures. Challenges. Again, coming from the non-profit sector, the biggest challenge is money, the dollars to sustain what you do. Vince and I have served for twenty years as the non-compensated Executive Director and Fiscal Manager. We've... until recently not applied for or sought grants, because we wanted to do people work, not paperwork, and we knew uh, we would get pulled into the bureaucracy of that.
So, that has been the greatest challenge. I wouldn't characterize it as a failure because, obviously, we're still here 20 years later and growing.
Seymour: What is perceived to be the one greatest accomplishment that has promoted victims' rights and victims' needs?
Roper: Well, no doubt, the Maryland Constitutional Amendment for Crime Victims' Rights passed in 1994. Despite the passage of more than sixty Maryland Statutes, the Amendment stands alone in really establishing another playing field that has just gone beyond what we originally hoped for. It has tipped the scales, changed the attitudes of the people in the system. They've recognized that they benefit as well.
Seymour: This might be a good time to talk about the National Victims Constitutional Amendment Network. You have a small role in that group too, don't you? If you could give us just a little background in what's going on.
Roper: Well, I'm privileged to serve with Bob Preston as the Co-Chair of NVCAN, and clearly we've had two amazing uh, champions in the Mar... in the United States Senate, uh, John Kyl of Arizona and Dianne Feinstein of California who uh, like so many others in the field have just had unwavering support and in my view that is... that's my last goal. I while I have stepped down in the organization that my husband and I founded and taken a less demanding role that's the last race to run, and we're confident that it will happen in our lifetime.
Seymour: What do you think we need today, Roberta, to continue the growth and professionalism in sort of sustaining our field for the future or what's missing that's holding us back?
Roper: Well, just as we need a national standard of victims' rights and services as embodied in an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, I think we need a national set of standards and training and education and certification. No one, no crime victim in America should be deprived of fair treatment, dignity, compassionate support because of poorly trained service providers or because a prosecutor isn't inclined to create a victim assistance unit or a law enforcement agency is not willing to apply for a grant and to be held accountable for how he or she treats victims.
So I think, you know, they go hand in hand, and we have now reached a point where service providers have to reach a level of professionalism.
Seymour: One of my favorite questions. What advice can you give to professionals and volunteers who have more recently joined our field in the past, you know, from yesterday to 10 years ago?
Roper: En... enter this field with the understanding that you know, it is not about fame or fortune. You certainly... it is not about... it is not one in which you will always be recognized, you will be appreciated, you will be compensated. I have often char... characterized it as a ministry uh, if not a miss... you know, it's certainly a mission but a ministry in which, you know, you do it because you want to do it. You are committed to it and you bring to it a level of dedication that does not demand recognition or a high salary, and I guess that's one of my concerns about the future that we never forget why we're here, why we're doing what we're doing.
And be prepared to grow old and get bags and wrinkles and gray hair but reap the highest rewards in personal satisfaction and knowing you made a difference in someone's life.
Seymour: If you could articulate one vision for the future of our field, what would that be?
Roper: One vision? I would hope that one day what we do today would no longer be necessary. Not that I believe we will ever not have victims and survivors of crime, but my dream is that one day victims' rights and victims' services will be so ingrained, so incorporated into way... into the way the criminal justice system works that it will be as naturally applied and considered as we now consider the rights of those accused or convicted of crime. I dream of a day when everyone who takes the bar exam and intends to practice criminal law must understand how crime victims are treated and the rights that should be applied to crime victims and the way they should be treated with adequate services.
So that is my hope and my dream that one day it will be routine, and we won't have to be paving new roads and blazing new trails.
Seymour: Look... well, almost last question. What's your greatest fear for the future, Roberta?
Roper: That, again, we forget who we serve. Why we're doing what we're doing if it becomes another government job. If it becomes another bureaucracy. If we get so engrossed in simply measuring results and being a bureau... bureaucracy that, you know, fills out reports at the expense of the people we are seeking to assist and serve then we will have lost our purpose and meaning.
Seymour: I'm gonna give you a bonus question that I've had some fun with today. If someone came in your office tomorrow..., you know, a victim or someone wanted to volunteer and asked you to just tell them the one thing that's different today from thirty years ago when our field began, what do you think that would be?
Roper: I think about there is acceptance... the more enlightened offices and agencies are more respectful. The word "victim" or "victim survivor" is not one that is denigrated and you know, it is... it's considered... the field is respected. The person is treated differently. The person is included in part of the process and that's really important because too often the criminal justice system becomes em... embroiled in... in how we're treating the offender, how we're gonna punish him, when in fact the victim is more concerned about the process.
Are they going to have a voice? Are they going to be informed? Are they going to be present? Will they be treated with respect? So ultimately that's what is different today. They are part of the process. They are respected.
Seymour: Any question that I didn't ask you that you're championed to answer?
Roper: I should ask Vince. And I the Federal Victims' Rights Amendment, of course, is the top priority for so many of us and we have had such amazing advocates in the field that we are confident that it'll happen but um, you know, I just wish there was a way to light some fires under the powers that be and create an identification, a greater identification with the general public. Unfortunately, you know, national disasters, community crisis events like the terrorist attack of 9/11 temporarily cause people to pause and say, "There but for the grace of God go I," and come to a closer understanding of crime victims suffer and deal with every day.
But it's very sad the fact... that it takes that kind of event to shake up the soul of America, and I'm hoping and praying that the Amendment will occur in our lifetime and change that outlook.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|