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Brutal Murder Inspires a Mother to Campaign for Rights of Victims

In the early 1980's, hundreds of ordinary people who'd been victims of crime started to speak out and demand reforms in the criminal justice system -- changes in the law that would recognize victims' rights.

Victims were often denied the right to information about judicial proceedings - and excluded from the trial, sentencing, and parole phases.

The judicial system has improved in most states in the last 25 years, thanks to victims' rights advocates like Roberta Roper --a reluctant hero who became one of the movement's most energetic champions -- a devoted mother of five and an art teacher at an elementary school in the eastern state of Maryland.

In early April, 1982, her oldest daughter, 22-year old Stephanie, was abducted, raped, tortured, shot and killed by two strangers who then dismembered and burned her body.

"You know your first reaction is: 'Why our family? Why Stephanie?' You're paralyzed with incomprehension and total grief," she recalls. "Our hearts were broken. Our lives were in disarray, trying to find a reason to get up every morning, to do all the things we had to do. I would go out and scream in the woods, ask God, 'Why us? Give me strength to endure this. How can I use this?'"

And then came the defendants' trials, another devastating experience for the Roper family.

"We naively believed that nothing could change the cruel reality [of her daughter's death] that we faced, that somehow things [in the prosecution of the case] would be okay. But they weren't," she says.

The two suspects were found guilty - but each received light sentences -- the equivalent of only 11 years with eligibility for parole. Roberta and her husband Vince were outraged at the sentencing -- and also at the way they'd been treated throughout the trial.

"We were silenced -- excluded from the trial. The defense argued that anything I had to say would be emotional, irrelevant and probably cause for reversal on appeal," she recalls. "Understanding and trying to explain to four surviving children that, unlike their sister's killers, we had no right to information, to attend the trial, to be heard at the sentencing, that the system we had taught them to believe in and respect was responsible -- that was the crushing blow."

Roberta Roper says that in her despair, she struggled to find a reason to go on living and find meaning in these tragic events. She said she asked God what to do and found the answer in Stephanie's old diaries.

"It was like every time I needed something [to boost my morale], it was there. One of the quotes she had written in one of the journals was one that became kind of the driving force of the organization - that 'one person can make a difference, and every person should try," Roper says.

Roberta Roper founded the Stephanie Roper Committee -- in an effort to protect other victims, and survivors of victims, from the flaws in the criminal justice system. At the time, her effort was almost unprecedented. Victims' rights law was a virtually unexplored facet of the criminal justice system.

But gradually, many people who read news articles about her case started to contact her. The Stephanie Roper Committee grew in numbers. Members converged on the Maryland state capital in Annapolis to pressure legislators to make reforms.

"I'll never forget one of the first impromptu rallies we had in Annapolis on the statehouse steps, before the [Maryland] General Assembly of 1983 was opening," she recalls. "We were announcing our intentions to lobby [advocate for changes in law] for rights for crime victims and support services for crime victims. I was astounded by the number of families who came up to us and said that they wanted to be a part of this effort -- that they, like us, had lost children or loved ones to homicide, that when it happened, they were told to go home -- there was nothing they could do. They wanted to do something."

Roberta Roper and her committee have done a lot to change the law in the years that followed.

"If you look at the more than 70 laws now approved by the Maryland General Assembly, they really focus on victims rights: the right to be informed, to be present and to be heard throughout the process, pretrial, during the trial, if there's a plea agreement, sentencing, reconsideration of sentencing, and if there's a parole. Victims in Maryland have the right to attend open parole hearings," she says. "You know, the criminal justice system belongs to us and we the people not only have a right but a responsibility to do our part to make it better."

Stephanie's killers were later retried, convicted, and imprisoned for life. Today, Roberta Roper still speaks out on behalf of crime victims' rights.

"In talking to groups, I often use a quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead," she says. "She said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. And indeed, that is the only thing that ever has (changed the world).'"