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Given Back Their Lives

Justice at last for Donnie Rogers' rape victims

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It has been four years since Elizabeth Connolly, naked from the waist up, ran screaming from her Elizabeth home wearing nothing but a sock and a long fitted skirt and pummeled a neighbor's door, begging someone to let her in. She told police investigators a brutal story of rape by a man named Donnie Alexander Rogers.

The worst of it, though, was still before her. Over the next four years, Connolly was raped again by Charlotte-Mecklenburg's severely under-funded, bumbling justice system. Thanks to our state legislature, the Mecklenburg County DA's office has fewer prosecutors than any other US county its size. That means that our county's prosecutors can pursue only half the felony cases police bring them. They lack the resources to pursue four out of five alleged rapes and two out of three robberies and when they do, it's often while juggling an unbearable caseload.

Perhaps that's why police investigators didn't get around to photographing Connolly's bruises until two weeks after the incident, and only then after she called them and demanded to know why no one had bothered to do it. The pictures of the faded bruises that remained somehow never made it into court, and the overworked kid prosecutor in her mid-20s who handled the case didn't bother to confirm basic facts that would have made a difference.

It took me just three phone calls, made in less than an hour, to confirm that the timeline given by the defense was impossible because Connolly was at work and had been seen by friends at Thomas Street Tavern at the time the defense insisted she was having consensual sex with Rogers. Though Connolly offered to gather evidence from her employer that she'd worked that night, and the phone numbers of those who'd seen her at the bar, the prosecutor brushed her off. As a result, the Connolly was left helpless once again, this time before a jury. Without proof of where she'd been that night, jurors were left confused as to whose timeline to believe.

Though DNA evidence proved that Rogers had had sex with her, our criminal justice system did a lousy job of telling the whole story of what happened the night of December 12, 1999.

And so Rogers, who according to police reports bragged to another victim that he had been getting away with assaults like this for 20 years, was found not guilty in November 2001 and allowed to once again walk the streets of Charlotte.

In the meantime, while Rogers went free and Connolly underwent counseling for her recurrent panic attacks and worked through her terror of the outside world enough to venture to the grocery store unaccompanied, an untested rape kit from 1998 gathered dust.

It wasn't until 2002 that the kit made the "lucky cut." It was chosen to be among a batch to be sent to our under-funded state lab for testing. I've been given a lot of excuses for why that kit languished. Because the state was picky about the quality of the evidence it would enter into its database. Because it would be too expensive to test all of them at the time. Because there was no known suspect in the case. None of these excuses have ever held water with me.

When it was finally tested in the spring of 2002, the DNA sample taken from Connolly in 1999 matched with the DNA sample from a brutal 1998 rape in the Park Road area. Last week, Donnie Rogers, 40, the rapist who bragged to his victims that the police couldn't catch him, was convicted of first degree rape, burglary and kidnapping. Because of his prior convictions for other crimes, he received a minimum of 83 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

This happened for one simple reason. It happened because -- despite his hectic schedule and all the demands on him -- Assistant DA John Ross, the only public official involved with this case whom I've talked to who didn't express a casual inevitability that Rogers would once again beat the system, decided enough was enough. For two years after the Connolly case, no matter how busy it got, Rogers' file never left his desk. He called 15 witnesses just to verify beyond the shadow of a doubt that the DNA was Rogers'. He systematically mapped out every detail of Rogers' life, down to the descriptions of the cars he and his wife have driven for the last several years.

Ask Ross to talk about the case, and though he tries to fight it, he gets choked up. For two years, when it seemed no one else cared, he never forgot what our system did to Connolly. In the process, he did the very thing our system often fails to do for rape victims -- he gave her and another woman their lives back.

Last week, for the first time in dozens of conversations between us over the last two years, I heard Elizabeth Connolly laugh. It's about time.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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