- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It was an unspeakable crime. After her car ran off the road on a rural road in Prince George’s County late one night in early spring, Stephanie Roper, 22, was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her body was a found a week later in a swamp in St. Mary’s County.
This all happened 30 years ago this month. The details of the crime were horrifying. Those can be left to fade into history. But Stephanie Roper is not forgotten. Out of her family’s sorrow, anger and deep pain came a movement to give rights to victims in Maryland courtrooms; a movement that also has had repercussions elsewhere in the nation.
Charles County residents Jack Ronald Jones, 26, and a teenager, Jerry Lee Beatty, were arrested after a tip led police to that swamp in Oakville. Both were sentenced to life in prison. But that sentence didn’t guarantee they would never go free. The family knew there was always the possibility of parole, perhaps in as little as 12 years.
Stephanie Roper’s parents also found that they had little influence or voice in the trial and punishment of their daughter’s killers. At the time, witnesses “were pieces of evidence that were used and discarded,” Roberta Roper, Stephanie’s mother, said last week.
The victims of crimes, or those who knew and loved them, didn’t have much chance to tell a judge or jury the impact that crimes had on them.
Roberta Roper and her husband, Vincent, formed the Stephanie Roper Committee, and began a sustained and enormously effective campaign for victims’ rights.
The legacy of that activism changed state law to require that victims be kept abreast of the legal status of accused criminals, and allows them to testify as to the impact of crime on the victims and families of victims. The federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, passed in 2004, is named for Stephanie Roper and four other murder victims. It guarantees, among other things, the right to be notified of, attend and speak at criminal justice proceedings.
Despite those successes, the work goes on. The laws are in place but they have to be enforced.
“As good as a particular jurisdiction might be, that all changes with the next election,” Roberta Roper said. “It’s a constant task of re-educating.” To do that work, the Stephanie Roper Committee has become the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center.
As it turned out, Stephanie Roper’s murderers remained behind bars. Jones took his own life in prison a couple of years ago, and Beatty remains in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
Meanwhile Stephanie Roper, a young artist and Frostburg State University student, is remembered. The advocacy for victims that resulted from her death does not erase pain, but does offer a greater measure of justice to countless victims and their families.