Defense rests in sex trial without calling teacher

June 06, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Attorneys for former Catholic school teacher John J. Merzbacher rested their case sooner than expected yesterday, without calling to the stand either Mr. Merzbacher or the former principal of the school where he taught two decades ago.

The rapid conclusion of the case means the jury is likely to hear closing arguments this morning and begin deliberations by afternoon -- after little more than a week of testimony.

Mr. Merzbacher, 53, is charged with more than 120 crimes related to alleged sexual abuse of 14 men and women, most of whom were students of his at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore in the 1970s.

The first criminal case against Mr. Merzbacher, involving charges of rape, perverted practice and sexual child abuse of a now 34-year-old Cockeysville woman, was to have lasted a month.

The accelerated pace, caused by the trimming of potential witnesses on both sides, means the jury's verdict will depend largely on whether it believes the 34-year-old woman's story that she was raped, or accepts the defense theory that she had another motivation, such as the money she could win in a civil lawsuit.

The last defense witness was Mr. Merzbacher's wife of 27 years. Gloria Merzbacher took the stand yesterday only long enough to identify photographs showing Mr. Merzbacher and some of his students. She was asked nothing about the alleged sexual abuse, which would have taken place while the two were married.

During her opening statement to the jury, defense attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez said Sister Eileen Weisman, Catholic Community principal during the mid-1970s, would testify that the alleged victim had problems with "perspective and telling the truth." And the lawyer raised the possibility that the charges against Mr. Merzbacher arose from "rumors" started by the firing of two other teachers, homosexual lovers Ms. Gutierrez said had an ax to grind against her client.

In the end, the jury heard little testimony about those claims. Having lost several battles with prosecutors to introduce evidence that would have supported those statements, Ms. Gutierrez decided not to call Sister Eileen.

The lawyer said after court yesterday that it wasn't worth it to have the principal take the stand if her testimony would be so restricted. "We have no burden" to prove Mr. Merzbacher's innocence, Ms. Gutierrez said.

Sister Eileen could have been questioned about positive teaching evaluations she gave Mr. Merzbacher during the years he allegedly raped the woman. But that would have opened a door for prosecutors to introduce broader evidence about Mr. Merzbacher's character.

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