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A family's fight for justice.

A FAMILY'S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE

If good can come out ofbad, then the remarkable story of Roberta Roper, a housewife who has captured national attention with a victims' rights organization she helped to start, is a shining example. On a spring night in April 1982. Roberta Roper's eldest daughter. Stephanie Ann Roper, 22, was brutally raped and murdered. Though deep in grief over this horror, Roberta Roper was composed enough to assist in organizing the "Stephanie Roper Committee,' which in the past two years has persuaded legislators in her home state of Maryland to pass new laws stiffening parole requirements and providing a measure of equity for the victims of violent crimes.

The Roper family had livedfor years in a secluded, mostly affluent area of Croom, in suburban Prince Georges County. Vincent Roper, a naval officer stationed in Washington, D.C., and Roberta had expected to escape the rigors of city living and, presumably, urban crime.

Stephanie was known as awarm, popular young person who showed great promise in her aspiration to become an artist. She was only a month away from graduating with honors from Frostburg State College in western Maryland. She was home from college and enjoying a break before returning for graduation. She wanted to have a night on the town with her childhood friend and former college roommate, Lisa Thomas, whose parents lived in neighboring Brandywine, Maryland. Like many young people within driving range of Washington, they would visit the Georgetown area, known for its weekend throngs of bar-goers and late-night revelers.

On the evening of April 2, 1982, aFriday, the two young women, after leaving Stephanie's car at Lisa's house, drove to Washington. They enjoyed an evening of dancing and having drinks, doing neither to excess, and left to return to Lisa's home shortly after 2:00 a.m. Saturday.

Stephanie had told her mother shewould be spending the night at Lisa's and would be home the next morning to go shopping. But Stephanie then changed her mind and decided to return home, despite the lateness of the hour. She said good-bye to Lisa at her house and left for home. It was the last time her friend saw her alive.

Stephanie traveled lessthan a mile on the dark, two-lane country road before she evidently lost control of her car, an orange Dodge Omni, which hit a stump. The rear axle was broken and three tires were damaged, making the car immobile. An official later said that Stephanie had fallen asleep at the wheel and added that she was not intoxicated. A woman driver later testified that she saw Stephanie's car pulled over halfway on the shoulder but was reluctant to stop and have a look. Police believe that Jerry Lee Beatty and Jack Ronald Jones found Stephanie stranded in her car.

Beatty was an unemployedhigh-school dropout. He was heavyset but looked no more than his 17 years. He usually wore a T-shirt that revealed heavily tattooed arms. One tattoo showed an octopus wrapped around a nude female.

At the time of the murder,Beatty was living with Jones in a small house only a few hundred yards from where Stephanie's body was eventually found. Jones' wife and six-year-old son lived with him. Jones was also unemployed, having been laid off his job as a maintenance worker two months before. Jones, 26, was of medium build and somewhat nondescript with his pale complexion.

This pair had met in a pool hall inWaldorf, Maryland, and had become close friends. On the fateful Friday night, Jones and Beatty were playing pool at a tavern in Mechanicsville, Maryland. According to their statements, they left the tavern about 11:00 p.m. and decided to cruise the back roads of Prince Georges County. This sort of leisurely driving, one of their favorite pastimes, gave them the opportunity to drink beer and take drugs. Beatty testified that he and Jones did drink beer and also smoke marijuana and PCP (Phencyclidine-Hydrochloride).

A Prince Georges County policeman,Corporal Frank Gale, testified at Jones' trial that Jones had signed a statement shortly after his arrest: "I must have been stupid to ever have gotten myself involved in something like this.' Gale said Jones told him that he and Beatty had found Stephanie and her car in the early hours of April 3, disabled on the two-lane country road. Beatty and Jones, according to Jones' statement, helped push the car off the road and offered to be of further assistance. Gale said Jones told him that Stephanie Roper then asked for a ride back to Lisa Thomas' house.

The three entered Jones' faded blueMercury. Beatty and Stephanie sat in the back seat while Jones drove. Instead of letting Stephanie out at Lisa's, they passed her driveway and continued in the opposite direction.

Corporal Gale quoted Jones as saying:"The girl was afraid of Mr. Beatty. She didn't seem afraid of me. She was crying a lot in the back seat.' Jones drove the car several miles east of Lisa's home in Brandywine and stopped on a deserted road, where both men then raped Stephanie while taking turns holding a .22-caliber rifle on her, according to Gale. Jones drove again, this time backtracking past Lisa's, and headed directly south. Less than an hour later, they arrived in the Oakville section of neighboring St. Mary's County at an abandoned house near where Jones and his wife and child lived.

According to Beatty's testimony,the two men took Stephanie from the car to a nearby, heavily wooded area and beat and again raped her.

She was now fearful for her life."She asked me if I was going to shoot her,' Beatty told the court. "I said, "No.' She asked if Jack would shoot her. I said I didn't think he would. That he had enough sense not to do anything like that. . . . She asked if I would let her go. I said I wanted to but couldn't because I would not know what would happen to me. I figured if I didn't do what he said my life might be in danger.'

According to Beatty's testimony,Stephanie tried to escape several times. She kneed Beatty in the groin, and he beat her for it. She cried repeatedly, "Lisa, please help me!' Beatty said she screamed for "God to help her.' Jones hit her with a logging chain and she ran away, but Jones caught her. The autopsy revealed that her skull had been fractured by the blow from the chain.

Jones allegedly ordered Beatty,then holding the rifle, to shoot Stephanie. She was holding her head and crying, "What are you doing?' To this day, it is not clear who then fired the shot that entered her forehead and killed her. Stephanie's life and her suffering were ended.

Beatty testified that Jones grabbedthe rifle from him and shot Stephanie. Jones told police he didn't even know she had been shot.

Jones, according to police, went tohis car and siphoned gasoline with the intention, he said, of burning her clothes and her pocketbook. He told police he took her wrist and found no pulse, so "I poured gas on her and lit it.'

Beatty said he watched the burningbody and threw water on the fire: "I couldn't stand it no more.' He and Jones dragged the body to a stump hole in a nearby swamp. Beatty testified that Jones said they must "get rid of her hands, her feet, her head, so they couldn't identify the body.'

The two young men stood andlooked at each other as the light of morning entered the foggy woods. Beatty said, "I ain't never did nothing like this before in my life.' Jones replied, "I ain't either.'

When Stephanie's body was locatedby the police eight days latter --late on Easter Day--both hands had been severed. To this day, Beatty and Jones have never admitted to this mutilation of Stephanie's body.

The Ropers had been in agonyduring Stephanie's disappearance. Roberta Roper knew her daughter well enough to expect a call had she decided to extend her stay at Lisa's house. When Stephanie's car was found, and she not in it, the family's apprehensions turned to raging anxiety.

The Ropers did not know duringthis ordeal that the night after the slaying, Beatty told Jones' brother-in-law, Stephen Anonsen, that something bad had happened. Anonsen, 18, who also lived in the Jones house, was told by Beatty that Jones "had done a very bad crime the other night.'

Beatty told Anonsen that he hadraped a girl and that Jones had shot her--according to testimony Anonsen later gave. Anonsen doubted Beatty's story until he saw televised news reports that Stephanie was missing. After worrying over this revelation for a few days, Anonsen went to his pastor for advice and then told his story to authorities.

When the police arrested Beattyand Jones, they found marijuana, PCP and a box of .22-caliber bullets that matched the one that killed Stephanie. The authorities had little doubt about what happened that night. Only the trial remained.

As the Ropers and their friendscommiserated over the horrible revelations, they formed a nucleus that at first assisted with funeral preparations and then later with transportation to courtroom appearances during the trial. From the beginning, this group believed that Stephanie's murder would not go unanswered.

Jones' trial was first, opening September20, 1982. The state's attorney from Maryland, C. Clarke Raley, relied heavily on Beatty's testimony. Jones did not take the stand during the trial. The jury heard Beatty, a forensic psychiatrist and the police witnesses. The testimony was gruesome. The verdict seemed certain, the sentence being the only question to be decided. The jury took ten hours to deliberate. Jones was found guilty of kidnapping, rape and murder.

The jury recommended life imprisonmentbut left the judge the option of allowing the convicted murderer to serve concurrent sentences instead of doing time for each charge one after the other. Among the mitigating circumstances the jury cited were that Jones was not a threat to the community, had not impeded the police investigation, had suffered a traumatic family history and was now expressing a love for "the Lord.'

During the sentencing, Jonestold the jury that he felt "deep remorse' and added that he could not understand "why something like this could happen.' He wept when telling the jury that his mother was "very upset about what had happened' and that she was "very concerned about my life.'

Jones was sentenced October 8 toconcurrent rather than successive "life' sentences. Beatty entered the courtroom the day of his trial. October 19, with a plea of guilty on the same counts that Jones was charged and convicted on. Beatty received the same sentence.

The Ropers were stunned by the leniencyof the sentences. As the news spread that Beatty and Jones could be eligible for parole in 12 years, a public outcry arose for "something to be done.'

"One person can make adifference, and every person should try,' Stephanie Roper had written in a personal journal shortly before her death. Those very words became the wry battle cry of a grass-roots movement in her name determined to change what was seen by them as an unjust, overlenient and even dangerous process of sentencing convicted felons in Maryland.

Vic and Judy Pietkiewicz,friends and neighbors of the Roper family, were among the first to act. They had known Stephanie at Holy Rosary Church, where she was a founding member of a youth group Vic Pietkiewicz had sponsored.

The Stephanie Roper Committeehad no difficulty getting volunteers, and petitions went out for the signatures of people protesting the possibility of such an early parole. Within two months, 93,000 signatures were obtained.

The committee enlisted the volunteerservices of a Maryland law student, Kurt Wolfgang, to draft five proposals for the 1983 Maryland General Assembly:

1. Eliminate voluntary drug or alcoholintoxication as a mitigation of criminal intent.

2. Require that capital-crime convictionscarry either the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.

3. Establish the right of the victimor members of the victim's family to submit a victim-impact statement and to address the court during a sentencing hearing.

4. Require that the death-penaltystatute be expanded so that co-conspirators in a capital crime can be held liable.

5. Change the name "parole commission'to "inmate-review board' and require the governor's approval for all paroles.

State Senator T.V. "Mike' Millerpredicted the bill would move quickly. "It will pass the judicial-proceedings committee,' he said. "What they are seeking is not unreasonable. The public is outraged, not only in our county, but throughout the state.'

January 17, 1983, was a bitterlycold day in Annapolis, the state capital, and yet 1,000 shivering supporters of the Stephanie Roper Committee rallied and heard speakers urging passage of the legislation.

"We have all been made victims bythe judicial system that failed Stephanie and every member of society,' Roberta Roper told the crowd. "We have come here to tell our legislature that we will not tolerate unjust justice. We are not looking for vengeance, but we must be the voice and presence of the victims who cannot be here. We want to make parole something that is earned in an extraordinary case, not a right. We will make sure that something good comes out of this tragedy. The sadness is that for Stephanie and those of us who have suffered, the price we have paid will be too high. Please remember what Stephanie wrote in her journal --that one person can make a difference and every person should try.'

In February 1983, the StephanieRoper Committee provided ample documentation of community support. Vic Pietkiewicz and others entered the Maryland General Assembly and carried two dozen boxes containing 93,000 signatures calling for stiffer sentencing laws. The petitioners jammed the hearing rooms and expressed their views to an attentive legislature.

Many testified about what being avictim of a crime meant, including Roberta Roper, who said: "We have suffered our nuclear holocaust. We have been victimized twice, first by the acts against our daughter, and then by a judicial system that made a travesty of justice. We are committed to being the voice of victims. Our motive is justice.'

Some voiced concernabout the Stephanie Roper Committee's call for justice and, in particular, its motivation. In December 1982, the Washington Post ran a headline proclaiming, "ACLU Chief Sees Overreaction to Roper Case.' John Roemer of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU was quoted as saying: "We need to dispassionately evaluate each [murder] case, rather than throw the body out to the neighbors . . . like the Ayatollah Khomeini.' This statement did not sit well with those who had spent so much time working for the Stephanie Roper Committee. But more criticism was to come.

In late January 1983, the WashingtonPost columnist Richard Cohen wrote: "There is a whiff of vigilantism to the Stephanie Roper Committee . . . there is a great deal of emotion bound up in the Stephanie Roper case, all of it understandable. It would be unfortunate, though, if all this emotion should be used to fuel a package of ill-conceived legislation. The bills substitute emotion for reason, and that, after all, is what her killers did. The bills are no fitting memorial to her.'

Roberta Roper read the column andwinced. Instead of replying with a letter to the editor, she decided to phone Cohen and convey her thoughts directly. She recalls the conversation this way: "I would not let the Richard Cohens of this world bother me or deter our efforts. What we have to do is far more important than their criticism. He admitted that he had not even seen them [the proposals]. He did not know that we had surveyed 30 states and that we knew that every proposal we were making had been modeled after existing laws in other states which had already been proved constitutionally. We had done our homework, you see, and I find it very irresponsible that a man in his position would make those statements. . . . Richard Cohen never talked to Vic Pietkiewicz or myself prior to writing the article. We have constantly maintained that we are not seeking vengeance.'

Indeed, this subject istouchy for Roberta Roper, because she has received criticism from within the membership of the Stephanie Roper Committee that she is "soft' on the death-penalty issue. "We keep telling people that we do not advocate the death penalty,' she says. "This committee represents as wide a range of views as any cross section of American citizens. In Maryland, we must assume that the death penalty does not exist, as neither citizens nor legislators seem able to cope with it. When we went to trial, we told reporters that there was not one particular sentence we were seeking, one that would bring us a particular satisfaction. But we certainly never expected our daughter's murderers to be eligible for parole in less than 12 years.

"During the trial, the defense attorneystried to tell the court that we were nothing but a bunch of vigilantes,' Roberta says. "Afterward, we got more of the same from ACLU lawyers.'

The three so-called "Roper Bills'were signed into law by Governor Harry Hughes May 24, 1983, about 14 months after Stephanie's death. Roberta and Vincent Roper were present, along with important members of the Stephanie Roper Committee.

One law eliminates voluntary drugor alcohol intoxication as a mandatory mitigating circumstance in capital crimes. If a person takes alochol or drugs on his or her own, then he or she is responsible for any capital crime that might stem from intoxication due to the drinking or the drug use.

A second law increases the minimumtime to be served in a life sentence in a case where the death penalty was sought from 15 to 25 years. This law would increase the minimum time served--given time off for good behavior--from 11 years and 8 months (the possible minimum time Beatty and Jones might serve) to 19 years and 6 months.

The third law provides the right tothe victim and the members of the victim's family to submit a "victim-impact statement' that could be used in subsequent civil actions.

These laws were passed despiteconsiderable opposition and only after a great deal of wrangling and compromise. Prosecutors and defense attorneys generally agree that, after being in force for 18 months, the minimum-sentencing provision has worked out well.

"It certainly provides a trial courtan alternative in sentencing, as opposed to the black-and-white death sentence,' says Richard Sothoron, a prominent criminal attorney in Prince Georges County. "It is a sensible alternative, though we haven't had enough cases in Maryland to gauge its worth yet.'

Sothoron says the law removingmandatory invocation of alcohol or drug use as a mitigating circumstance has resulted in most judges "showing latitude in allowing defense attorneys to pursue it.' In other words, the new law hasn't tightened up the provision on alcohol and drug use as a mitigating circumstance.

Sothoron says attorneys have reservationsabout the impact statement on the grounds it allows a rehashing of the facts.

The Ropers have made only a dentin the legal system. But the dent is permanent in Maryland law, and the atmosphere in the courts has changed as a result.

Roberta Roper's mission now is tocontinue trying to get tougher bills passed and signed into law in Maryland, to maintain the vitality of the Stephanie Roper Committee (12,000 members today) and to do what she can to encourage other movements to begin in various states.

Roberta Roper and her family continueto adjust to life without Stephanie. Two of the Roper's children now attend college and live away from home. Vincent Roper at age 51 is preparing for retirement from the service and is looking forward to spending more time working with the Stephanie Roper Committee. He will also have a chance to coach his youngest son's soccer team, a passion of his.

Jerry Lee Beatty and Jack RonaldJones were convicted and sentenced more than two years ago. Neither has made any attempt to contact the Ropers. Roberta Roper acknowledges that she once tried to do so: "The night we were waiting for the sentence from the jury, I asked Jones' attorney if I could speak to him. His attorney, E. Allen Sheperd, said, "Well, this is such a traumatic time for him [Jones], but certainly in the future there would be sometime you could talk to him.''

That meeting between RobertaRoper and one of the men responsible for Stephanie's death never took place.

Asked about what she would havesaid to Jones had she been given the opportunity, Roberta Roper pauses to think and then says, "I don't know. I really don't know just what I would have said. I guess I would have said a lot of the things I was never allowed to say with a victim-impact statement or through testimony in court.'

Roberta Roper has more thanmade up for the injustices. She has helped to create an outlet for victims of crime throughout the state of Maryland to voice their concerns. She has given her fellow Marylanders something she wished she had when she first started out on her odyssey for justice: a tool for fighting back against an insensitive criminal-justice system.

Photo: "We have all been made victims by the judicial system,'Roberta Roper told 1,000 shivering Stephanie Roper Committee supporters at a January 1983 candlelight march to the Maryland Capitol. "We will not tolerate unjust justice.'

Photo: Law student Kurt Wolfgang volunteered his services to help the Ropers draft five proposed legislative changes (left). Within two months, the committee had received 93,000 signatures on petitions protesting early parole (above).

Photo: The Ropers were a happy family (above) before the tragedy.Now they continue to try to adjust to life without Stephanie. Vincent Roper, 51, is preparing to retire from the Navy and to spend more time working with the Stephanie Roper Committee.

Photo: "One person can make a difference, and every personshould try,' Stephanie had written in a personal journal. Those words became the battle cry for the grass-roots movement.

Photo: Stephanie clowns with friends. Her murder came only onemonth before she was to graduate with honors from Frostburg State College in western Maryland.

Photo: Kurt Wolfgang, now administrative assistantto the state's attorney in Prince Georges County, remains active as director for legislative action of the Roper committee.
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Author:Thimmesch, Nick
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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