Jailed mother refuses to testify about her son

January 25, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Jacqueline L. Bouknight rolled her eyes, smiled defiantly and laughed when called to testify yesterday before a juvenile court judge -- but refused to say a word about the whereabouts of her son, Maurice.

An attorney for her missing son begged and lectured her for about 30 minutes to end the seven years she has spent in jail rather than produce the boy, who would now be 8. It was to no avail: Ms. Bouknight refused even to swear to tell the truth before the court.

Over dozens of objections from Ms. Bouknight's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney for Maurice, pulled his chair next to the witness stand and spoke to Ms. Bouknight in a desperate, conversational tone.

"It's being sold that you're the victim," Mr. Mirviss said. "You're not the victim, you're the one that's calling the shots. What I can't figure out, ma'am, is why. . . . You've got us all spinning around. Let's end it."

Judge David B. Mitchell ordered Ms. Bouknight, now 28, to the Baltimore City Detention Center on April 28, 1988, for civil contempt of court. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 held that Ms. Bouknight could not use the Fifth Amendment to avoid the contempt order and jail.

After years of legal wranglings, delays and appeals, Judge Mitchell is holding a hearing to determine whether Ms. Bouknight has told all she knows about the whereabouts of her son, whom she had abused. If the judge determines she will not or cannot comply with his order, he must release her under the law.

Some authorities have long believed the child dead, possibly at Ms. Bouknight's hands. Ms. Bouknight, however, several months ago told a Baltimore police detective that her son had been given to a friend named "Rachael" who lived in the Carolinas, to keep him from returning to foster care. At a hearing nearly two years ago, she testified under oath that she had given Maurice to "a friend" she did not name.

But yesterday, she wouldn't even say that.

Mr. Mirviss tried everything, from naming all the birthdays and Mother's Days Ms. Bouknight has missed with her son, to raising the specter that she could stay in jail forever. He promised that if she helped find Maurice, an order signed by the judge would keep the city Department of Social Services from taking the boy away from the person who has him if the home is a safe and appropriate one.

Ms. Bouknight stared back with an expression between mirth and disbelief, tossing a tissue back and forth in her hands.

"You've spent seven years fighting for your kid, and you've won," Mr. Mirviss said. "What is that getting you? Is it getting you Maurice? . . . A loving mother needs to see her son. She needs to hug her son and kiss her son.

"Is being stuck inside better than being out? If you got out, ma'am, what would you do? There are people in this courtroom who would help set you up so you wouldn't fall down."

Court hearings and records in Ms. Bouknight's case have long been hidden by the confidentiality of juvenile court. But Judge Mitchell last week granted a motion by The Sun to open the current hearing and some court papers.

Ms. Bouknight's silent appearance on the stand was preceded by verbal sparring between Ms. Gutierrez and Judge Mitchell, who threatened to cite the attorney for contempt for repeatedly raising issues the judge said he had ruled on long ago. Ms. Gutierrez asked the judge to recuse himself from the case, something he dismissed as "ridiculous."

"We have no animus against Jacqueline Bouknight," the judge said. "We are simply asking the same question we have asked for seven years: Where is your child?"

The judge allowed the hearing to be continued tomorrow afternoon, to give Ms. Bouknight a chance to ponder Mr. Mirviss' entreaties overnight.

Ms. Gutierrez said after the hearing that she found yesterday's process "appalling," since the judge allowed Mr. Mirviss to deliver what she considered a speech to Ms. Bouknight instead of just asking questions.

She scoffed at Mr. Mirviss' professed concern for Maurice. "The record in this case is that no one . . . has done much of anything for 6 1/2 years to find this child," she said.

Ms. Gutierrez declined to say whether she had advised her client not to answer questions on the stand.

According to the transcript of the April 1993 hearing, Ms. Bouknight testified that she didn't want Maurice "being in Social Service like I was. They don't protect you enough."

When Judge Mitchell asked Ms. Bouknight that day if she knew her son was alive, she said yes.

"Do you know that in your heart, or do you know that in your head?" the judge asked.

"I know it in my heart," Ms. Bouknight replied.

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