The Fight for Victims' Rights
The horrific crime that made a lawyer out of Steven Kelly
Published in 2020 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 17, 2019
Back in 1988, my sister was sexually assaulted and murdered, we believe, by someone we knew, but the guy was never prosecuted. He was a local in the [Harford County] community, who had been suspected in other murders and had an alleged history of violence against women—including attacks on his own mother.
The local prosecutor didn’t think there was enough evidence, and it didn’t hurt that this guy was adopted into a very wealthy, connected family. The dad hired a very good defense lawyer, who I think scared off the prosecutor. We were not treated very well by the prosecutor or the police. We were a working-class family—my dad was a dairy farmer—and we were a little bit too trusting. I think that resulted in a lack of justice.
My sister was missing for six months, so it was a pretty high-profile case in Maryland at the time. There was basically one person in the entire state who helped victims, Roberta Roper, and she reached out to help support us. So I worked with Roberta from the time I was 14, becoming very active in efforts to reform the way victims are treated in the criminal justice system.
While I was in high school, we developed a curriculum about crime prevention and sexual violence. We worked on the passage of an amendment to the Maryland Constitution for crime victims’ rights in 1994 that gives victims the rights to be present at the trial, to be notified about criminal proceedings, and to give a victim impact statement. We also worked on what eventually became the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, which was passed just after I graduated from law school.
Shortly after I went to [undergraduate] college, in 1997, I worked for Roberta’s nonprofit, which is now called the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. I went there with the purpose of trying to develop a pro bono panel of lawyers to help crime victims with various legal issues. And we started a program that was funded by Legal Services to do just that.
Through that program, I saw how much a lawyer could do for victims. There are plenty of people who want to be prosecutors, but there are not too many folks who understand why a crime victim would need a separate lawyer. So, it was a pretty clear decision to go to law school.
The whole concept of the civil lawyer being involved in the criminal case—most lawyers think there’s some kind of prohibition against that. I view it as the opposite, as a kind of malpractice, not to be involved in the criminal case. I’m not telling the prosecutor how to do their job; that’s not my intent. My job is just to look out for my client’s rights and interests.
The big thing is shielding the victim from the brunt of the criminal justice process. Most people who are victims of a crime have no idea what to do when they’re introduced to the system. They’re just people who were robbed or raped; they didn’t ask for it. And if they’re left to their own devices, the criminal justice process can just beat the hell out of them. I can help figure out the best way to proceed. One thing, in a life-and-death situation, is to keep the perpetrator from hurting the victim or the victim’s family. That’s the most immediate need, and that’s something that’s very rarely done right. If you’re a rape victim and you report the rape to the police, there’s no way, at least initially, for whoever is making the decision about whether the perpetrator gets released to understand whether there are real safety concerns.
If there are real concerns or threats to the victim’s safety, then a lawyer can get the conditions of release modified to have the person held pending trial. A lawyer can get no-contact orders put in place as part of the conditions of a defendant’s release. I’ve also done a lot of work with child victims—keeping a kid’s name out of the public record so they don’t have to forever be identified as the victim of child sex abuse.
I just represented a St. Paul’s School rape victim, in a high-profile case. In her criminal case, there were cameras in the courtroom, and even though her name was supposed to be bleeped out, it was released all over the airwaves. She was then inundated with these horrible web trolls. I helped protect her privacy—trying to get stuff off the internet, getting the court to issue orders preventing it from happening again, contacting media outlets to get it off. In this case, I represented her in her criminal trial in New Hampshire, and then filed a lawsuit against the school. However, a lot of what I do is intervene in criminal cases.
The need regarding sexual assault in the criminal justice system—the way it’s treated, the way it’s prosecuted—is just staggering. Right now, I’m focused on sexual assault prosecution and how to not re-traumatize the victims in the way that they’re interrogated by police, and to look at the tactics used in these cases. You don’t get away with blatant intimidation in any other kind of law—humiliating people, digging up dirt, slut-shaming them. That just doesn’t happen in other types of cases.
A lot of this behavior by lawyers is unethical and needs to be exposed. You’re targeting vulnerable people, and then your defense is to basically rip into them for doing drugs and being promiscuous. And much of that behavior is due to the fact that they were sexually abused. I’m embarrassed by that conduct, as a member of the bar, and I think it’s appalling that prominent lawyers and big fancy law firms would engage in that kind of behavior in this day and age.
I have many friends in the defense bar who I respect and think the world of. But there’s a difference between zealous advocacy and engaging in hateful, nasty behavior that’s purely aimed at getting people to back off and discourage people from coming forward with complaints about sexual assault. To me, it ends up resulting in lower reporting rates, and then you’re shaping attitudes of police, prosecutors. And that’s why you end up with this 20% or less number for prosecution rates in sexual assault cases.
But observing the resilience of people in the face of evil acts—that’s incredibly rewarding. As is giving people a voice and a champion who desperately need one and don’t otherwise have one. It’s easy to feel rewarded doing this work, because it’s relatively easy to make a big difference in somebody’s life by doing little things. A lot of times, it’s more fulfilling and life-giving than you would think.