Over the last few weeks, Jessica has been staying in her office in Baltimore, afraid to sleep in her own bed.

On May 22, 2023, Jessica met an acquaintance at a seafood restaurant for dinner and then went out for drinks. He offered to walk her home, she said, but he then went inside her house on the outskirts of Patterson Park without her permission. She said she woke up on the couch to him raping her.

Jessica, who asked to only be identified by her first name, took the rare step of reporting what happened to law enforcement and moving forward with the prosecution.

The majority of sexual assaults go unreported, and what unfolded in Jessica’s case helps explain why. She took off work only to endure a series of delays outside her control. Eventually, she had to make a choice: show up in court and testify, or work and pay her rent.

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Jessica chose to pay her rent. She gave up on the criminal justice system, and the man she reported had raped her was released from custody.

“Even though you’re the victim, and it’s your body, and you were violated, you’re not being represented,” Jessica said in a recent interview. “You’re hoping the state would advocate for you, and when it’s not being done, it’s retraumatizing.”

‘Loss of liberty, loss of money’

As Jessica was getting ready to testify about what happened that night, a series of delays and scheduling conflicts began to upend the trial, which had been set to begin on May 15.

First, the assistant public defender for the man she reported had sexually assaulted her was stuck in a different trial, which went longer than expected. But the prosecution was on a tight timeline of its own: the assistant state’s attorney said he could only proceed with the trial as it was initially scheduled. That’s because he had another rape case coming up the following week with a witness coming in from out of town.

It was up to Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa K. Copeland, the judge in charge of the criminal docket and the only one capable of granting postponements, to sort everything out.

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Over the protests of the assistant state’s attorney, Copeland ordered the trial to start the next day. Both sides picked a jury on May 16.

On May 17, though, the assistant public defender was out sick, so her colleague asked the judge to hold the case over until May 20. Meanwhile, the prosecutor stated that he would actually prefer a longer delay.

6/28/22—the exterior of the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse.
The exterior of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore is pictured in this photo from June 28, 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

At the center of the scheduling vortex, through no fault of her own, was Jessica, who owns her own business. She had cleared out her schedule and already missed work on May 15, May 16 and May 17. She simply could not afford to come back to court on May 20, a day when she was supposed to work, the assistant state’s attorney reported.

Copeland later went through the procedural history of the case and stated that she had to balance factors when making a decision. The man, she said, had been incarcerated for more than eight months.

“Loss of liberty, loss of money,” Copeland said. “This man’s liberty is at abeyance.”

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“Well, judge, I believe you also have the safety of the community and the safety of the victim,” Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Render said.

“Well, I understand that. I do. And that is why I think it is very important that this matter is tried,” Copeland said. “Postponement is denied.”

Jessica, the judge said, was not unavailable. She was not sick or living out of state. “The issue of the victim with their money is a state issue,” Copeland said. “It’s not a court issue.”

Crime victims are ‘ancillary to the process’

The fact that the court was inflexible even toward a woman who reported that she was raped came as no surprise to Lydia Watts, executive director of the Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise Center, or ROAR Center, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which helps crime victims access legal and social services.

Though victims are essential to the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases, they’re not officially a party to it, Watts pointed out. Instead, the state is a party.

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While there are important reasons for court delays — a defendant’s due process rights, a police officer on medical leave — Watts said that what winds up happening is that victims become “ancillary to the process.” The dynamic has become even more dire since the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the city’s criminal court system, Watts said.

“To be honest, it’s an issue for victims of all types of crime,” Watts said.

“It’s just particularly onerous when it’s a crime that has such a devastating emotional impact,” she added. “It’s such a violation.”

‘This decision has impeded the pursuit of justice’

On May 20, the assistant public defender was still sick. So both sides proposed a solution: a brief postponement until May 30. Copeland agreed to that delay.

But on May 30, Render reported that he spoke to Jessica, who indicated that “she’s lost enough money that she simply cannot afford to be here.”

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Jessica, he said, told him that she would not be showing up to trial. Render explained what would happen if she did not appear, he said, and she understood.

“She’s much more concerned with paying her rent this month than with testifying at this trial,” Render said.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office dropped the case, and the man was released from custody. He’s since filed a petition for expungement.

His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Judit Otvos, said in a statement that her client sat in jail for almost one year and vehemently denied the charges throughout the court proceedings.

She blamed some of the initial delays on the assistant state’s attorney.

”Despite the fact that the State ultimately dismissed the case, this has been a traumatic experience for our client, who lost a year of his life to charges that were rightfully dropped, and highlights many of the shortcomings of the criminal justice system,” Otvos said.

In a statement, Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said his office understands and shares Jessica’s disappointment with the outcome of the case.

“Unfortunately, the victim could not participate fully in the proceedings due to the court’s scheduling decision,” Bates said. ”This decision has impeded the pursuit of justice, and we understand how it could add further trauma to the victim.”

A spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office, James Bentley, said in an email that prosecutors “will not make any decision on recharging until after meeting with the victim in this case.”

But Jessica said that, despite weeks of trying to schedule it, that interview still hasn’t happened. She suspects that prosecutors are stalling and have no intention of bringing the charges again.

Jessica said she’s trying to connect with advocates and attorneys to press the state for help. For one, she said, she wants housing with 24/7 security. As of now, Jessica said she’s still sleeping in her office due to her fear of returning home.

“If they’re not going to give me justice,” she said, “they should at least have to pay to keep me safe.”

Despite it all, Jessica said she doesn’t regret reporting to law enforcement.

“This is an issue that needs to be brought to light,” she said. “So many people would have just walked away and dealt with their trauma in their own way. I feel like that’s not fair to the victims.”