Jailed mother nears end to defiant silence

October 18, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Two presidents ago, Jacqueline Louise Bouknight went to jail for refusing to tell authorities where to find her baby son, who had twice been beaten badly while in her care.

Ms. Bouknight, now 28, is still in jail, steadfast in her failure to provide the boy's whereabouts. The child still cannot be found. Now, The Sun has learned, two out of three lawyers in the long, tangled case, including the attorney for the missing boy, finally agree that 6 1/2 years in jail for civil contempt is enough: It is time to set Ms. Bouknight free.

Ms. Bouknight is the longest-running resident of the Baltimore City Detention Center -- and the only one not charged with a crime. None of a number of law professors and lawyers interviewed could give an example of anyone who had been jailed that long for civil contempt.

It has been so long that her baby's eighth birthday passed about two weeks ago.

A foster child herself, Ms. Bouknight has been described by a Towson psychologist as being borderline retarded, and by those who know her as emotionally volatile. But her lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said Ms. Bouknight still "understands how long this has been more than anyone else.

"She has watched people come in and out of the prison doors who have committed heinous crimes," Ms. Gutierrez said. "Her struggle to keep any emotional equilibrium . . . has been difficult."

Ms. Bouknight's saga began when social workers failed to monitor her turbulent relationship with the child, Maurice Lorenzo Miles, for about seven months. Then they reported Maurice missing. After police checked out fruitless leads about where the child might be, Ms. Bouknight was ordered to jail for contempt of court, where she finally refused to help investigators.

The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court in a losing battle for Ms. Bouknight, who exercised her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

the state's interest in protecting children superseded that right. Since she had violated an agreement to produce the child, Ms. Bouknight could not use the Fifth Amendment to avoid the contempt order.

Four years after that ruling, the case has faded from view as completely as Maurice eludes those who seek him.

Normally the issue of Ms. Bouknight's freedom, vs. the court's power to jail her until she produces what it wants, would be open to public scrutiny. But the case is still considered a secret juvenile custody matter, cloaking its proceedings under Maryland law. Attorneys say they are not allowed to talk about it, and hearings have been closed.

That makes it impossible to tell how zealously arguments have been raised about Ms. Bouknight's constitutional rights to liberty, or what other circumstances may have arisen. Regardless of whether the arguments have been made or not, Baltimore City juvenile court Judge David B. Mitchell has not released Ms. Bouknight on his own initiative -- as he has the authority to do.

No proof found

After 6 1/2 years, Ms. Bouknight has served as much time as someone convicted of manslaughter, a conviction authorities might have pursued had they gathered sufficient proof to back up their suspicions. But they have not found such proof. Indeed, opinions among police, lawyers and others involved in the search for Maurice over the years are divided as to whether he is dead or alive.

Even advocates for abused and neglected youth, some of whom heralded the Supreme Court's decision four years ago as a victory for the protection of children, said this week it's time for the court to give up.

"I really think that she should be released now," said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland Law School professor and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth, which filed an amicus brief supporting the continued contempt order when the case was before the Supreme Court.

"If it hasn't worked after six years, it's not going to. . . . Now it's like you're punishing her for a crime you never brought charges on. In America, that's a scary thought."

Contacted last week, state Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who has represented the Baltimore City Department of Social Services in the case for its duration, said "we have not yet taken a position on [the] question" of whether continuing to jail Ms. Bouknight will ever produce her child. He refused to discuss whether that issue was formally before the juvenile court.

"The importance of this case is that it absolutely established the principle that a parent's defiance of a juvenile court order is not protected by the Fifth Amendment," Mr. Tyler said. "Certainly it has been frustrating, if not tragic, that the object in this case -- to find the child -- has not been accomplished."

Sources familiar with the case say both Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who represents Maurice, and Ms. Gutierrez have filed motions in juvenile court arguing that Ms. Bouknight should be released. While they raise different issues, according to the sources, both maintain that the contempt order isn't working and isn't likely to.

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