Lawyers turn life-changing experiences into careers helping others

Posted January 4th, 2009.

As It Appeared On

For 20 years, Steven J. Kelly has dealt with fallout from his sister’s murder. There was his mother’s heart attack, suffered just days after a construction worker found Mary Frances Kelly’s body in the woods.

There was the consuming anger that, at times, made Steve Kelly and his brothers fantasize about killing the man they believe did it.

There was the family that used to get together every Sunday, but drifted apart after the murder.

But Kelly credits something else to that tragedy, too: his legal career. His sister’s death galvanized Kelly to work for victims’ rights, which ultimately led him to law school and, now, to pro bono work on behalf of victims.

Representing victims is “like a compulsion,” he said.

Cold case

Mary Kelly, 28, a divorced mother of two living in Bel Air, went missing on April 21, 1988. Her bloodstained car was found a few days later in the parking lot of a Royal Farms store where she had once worked.

Her body was not found until September.

Steve Kelly said the police called to tell the family that they had found a body, but the Kellys found out from the evening news that police had made a positive identification. The reporter held up a piece of Mary Kelly’s vertebrae.

Later, police came to the house with an envelope and poured out a ring with a flap of Mary’s skin still attached, Kelly said.

Within days, Kelly’s mother had her heart attack, followed by an incapacitating stroke.

A classmate of one of Mary Kelly’s young daughters told the girl, “They found your mommy in a trash bag.”

Police never made an arrest. Maryland State Police said last week that an arrest is still possible; forensic evidence in the case, along with evidence from many other cold cases, was sent to a laboratory for retesting this past fall, said Cold Case Unit Sgt. Otis Whitaker. Steve Kelly, though, said he doesn’t hold out much hope.

A connection

Kelly, the youngest of nine children, was 14 years old when his sister disappeared. He had been closer to Mary than to any of their brothers and sisters. She had been the affectionate one in the family, the sibling who remembered everyone’s birthdays, some feat in such a big family.

Kelly’s older brothers beat themselves up with guilt about Mary. Somehow, they think, they should have protected their 4-foot-11-inch, 90-pound sister.

The Kelly brothers dreamed of getting the man they suspected in Mary’s death. Surely, they would be justified, they reasoned.

Steve Kelly found some solace in talking to other victims, especially Roberta Roper, a victim advocate whose daughter was murdered in 1982. She directed Kelly to a victims’ support group.

“I remember sitting in [a] Prince George’s County support group with women with whom I had nothing in common,” Kelly said. “They were African-American women sitting in a room with me, this rural, Harford County white boy, and I felt more of a connection with them than certain members of my own family. …”

Kelly pushed his high school to add a crime victim awareness and crime prevention unit to the social studies curriculum, something the school still teaches.

“He was an amazing 14-year-old,” Roper said.

The right to be heard

After graduating from American University in 1997, Kelly was teaching Catholic school in Washington, D.C., when Roper called to offer him a job. Her organization, the Stephanie Roper Foundation, had gotten a grant to connect low-income victims with pro bono lawyers.

Kelly took a job running that program. Under the supervision of a staff attorney, he recruited lawyers from large firms, trained them in victims’ rights and matched them with victims. That’s when, spurred by the encouragement of those at the Roper Foundation, Kelly decided to go to law school.

“I think it’s a really powerful thing when you see how much good a lawyer can do for somebody who really needed it, and see that on a regular basis,” Kelly said.

Kelly always thought he would be a prosecutor, he said, and he won’t rule out doing that eventually. For now, he is a corporate lawyer at Miles & Stockbridge P.C. who does pro bono victim assistance on the side. He sits on the board of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc., formerly the Roper Foundation.

He said he wants to make sure victims are treated with dignity and respect, something his family could have used in 1988.

Part of that dignity and respect is giving victims their say in court, he said. Victims want the chance to tell a judge how the crime affected them, but sometimes they don’t get to do that. Kelly said defense attorneys sometimes move to block an impact statement, and prosecutors and judges, wary of having a sentence reversed on appeal, may assent.

“You need a private lawyer to come in and say, ‘No, wait a minute; this person has a right under the Maryland Constitution to do that,’” he said.

Kelly also works to get victims restitution money or funds from Maryland’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

He said victims don’t always get restitution, partly because parole and probation agents are in charge of getting the money. An agent with a burdensome caseload may push restitution collection to the back burner.

“They just don’t see it as their job; they see it as this person’s out for the money, is only worried about the money, when really it’s not the money; it’s the principle of the thing, that it’s part of the repayment process, it’s part of the reconciliation,” Kelly said.

Kelly has trained victim advocates and prosecutors on teaching victims to push for restitution on their own. When a judgment is entered against a defendant, a victim can request that the judgment be recorded and indexed and, like any other creditor, can request to garnish the defendant’s wages, he said.

He also represents victims before the compensation board, which parcels out money to innocent crime victims. Sometimes, it’s a fight. In one case, the board declined compensation to the child of a murdered prostitute, even though there was no evidence that she was engaging in prostitution when she was killed. Lawyers were able to step in and reverse the denial, Kelly said.

“Compensation is something I still try to do, and it’s really one of my passions…,” Kelly said “Take somebody who’s living paycheck to paycheck and you steal their car or you assault them so they can’t work, and then all of a sudden they don’t have a vehicle and they don’t have a job, they don’t have a means to make a living, and what is that person going to do? I think if the criminal justice system treats them horribly, it just is going to ensure almost they’re going to end up back on the streets or they’re going to end up victimizing somebody else.”

Honoring her memory

Kelly has worked with offenders as well as victims, he said. He has gone into prisons as part of the Division of Corrections’ Victim/Offender Impact of Crime Education program, talking to inmates about how Mary’s murder affected him and his family.

“It really helped me to see when a person commits a crime, it’s a tragedy all around,” he said. “Especially a murder — you’re ruining the person’s life that you killed, you’re devastating their family, but you’re also doing it to your family and yourself.

“My reaction used to be anger: let’s get this bastard, let’s kill him. But I think after working with the offenders, my reaction is, my God, what a tragedy. Just make them see what this has done to your life.”

He said his family never came close to hurting the man they think killed Mary, but had they wanted to, they could have justified it to themselves. Now that he has talked to prisoners, he realizes that’s where their crimes began, too.

“There’s no question that my brothers and I could rationalize killing the person who murdered our sister, but I think that’s what you hear from offenders: he wronged me or she wronged me or I perceived this, and that’s why I thought I could do what I did,” Kelly said.

Violence and a life sentence would be a poor way to honor his sister’s memory, he said. Helping other victims is a better way. He finds his clients inspiring, he said.

“There are an awful lot of people like that who overcome incredible tragedies and do amazing things with their life, so for me, that’s why I’m drawn to this,” Kelly said.

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