Attorneys in the case of a mother jailed for nearly seven years for failing to reveal what she had done with her young son admitted publicly for the first time yesterday that they believe the child is alive and was given away by his mother to keep him from foster care.
Despite those admissions, attorneys for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services yesterday continued to oppose releasing Jacqueline Louise Bouknight from jail on the grounds that she could do more to help find her son, Maurice, now 8.
Ms. Bouknight, 28, has been at the Baltimore City Detention Center since April 28, 1988, when Judge David B. Mitchell declared her in civil contempt of court for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her then 18-month-old son, Maurice, after the Department of Social Services could not locate him.
Maurice was taken from his mother after twice being abused in her care after his birth in 1986. He was returned to Ms. Bouknight by a juvenile master, but caseworkers lost track of the boy.
Police began to investigate his disappearance as a homicide after Ms. Bouknight's statements about Maurice's whereabouts did not check out. She ultimately took the Fifth Amendment, citing the police investigation, and refused to help detectives at all for a time.
Hers has been one of the longest incarcerations in the country for civil contempt. Her appeal of the contempt order went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1990 that she could not use the Fifth Amendment to avoid contempt and jail.
Hearings in the case have been closed since the Supreme Court ruling because they have taken place in juvenile court, where confidentiality laws apply. But Judge Mitchell yesterday granted motion by The Sun to open the latest hearing, and to disclose some court papers on the question of Ms. Bouknight's release.
Lawyers for the state opposed the newspaper's motion. The issue before the court now is whether the contempt ruling will coerce Ms. Bouknight to reveal the whereabouts of her son or whether she should be set free. Ms. Bouknight's lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, has argued that her client no longer knows exactly where her son is and therefore cannot lawfully be held.
But attorneys for Maurice and the Department of Social Services have told the court that Ms. Bouknight has become more cooperative recently and continuing to hold her may be the only way to find the boy.
"I think we have the best chance we've ever had of finding Maurice, and Ms. Bouknight has the best chance she's ever had of being released," said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who represents Maurice.
Testimony in yesterday's hearings and court documents made public by the judge painted a tangled web of disagreements over points of law and protocol that have helped keep Ms. Bouknight in jail. Through much of yesterday's hearing, the thin woman sat cradling her face in one hand, appearing to sleep through some of the more technical arguments.
Among the developments brought to light yesterday:
* A lie detector test given to Ms. Bouknight 2 1/2 years ago, at the request of her lawyer, found no deception when she said she had not harmed her son after February 1988; that she had placed him in the care of a woman named "Rachael"; and that she was not positive of his current address.
* Under questioning by Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who represents the Department of Social Services, Baltimore City police Detective Tyrone Francis testified that the attorney general's office had offered financial assistance to then-Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods for Detective Francis to travel to follow up leads about Maurice's whereabouts in 1993.
But the detective never made the trips, and instead was taken off the case for a period before being reassigned to it last fall by current Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, after a second request from Mr. Tyler for Detective Francis to take back the case.
* Ms. Bouknight last indicated her willingness in October to be interviewed by Detective Francis to help find her son. But he stopped meeting with her because the Baltimore City state's attorney's office wanted her to be read Miranda rights before being interviewed -- even though Ms. Bouknight for several years has been offered immunity from prosecution for any statements she might make to the judge about Maurice.
Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms would not comment on the issue of Miranda warnings last night. He said only: "You're talking about a matter pending for a number of years that we've tried to resolve."
* Ms. Bouknight's attorney, Ms. Gutierrez, who repeatedly has complained that other parties were unfairly keeping Ms. Bouknight behind bars, advised Ms. Bouknight not to help police and did not contact Ms. Bouknight for nearly a year, according to her client, Detective Francis testified.