Jury in sex trial begins deliberations

June 07, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Jurors in the sex abuse trial of former Catholic school teacher John J. Merzbacher deliberated three hours yesterday before going home without a verdict.

Shouting could be heard from the jury room shortly after the panel of eight men and four women received the case about 2:05 p.m. At 4:53 p.m., the group sent out a note asking to go home for the evening.

Mr. Merzbacher, 53, is charged with three counts of statutory rape, one count of first-degree rape, one count of perverted sexual practice and one count of sexual child abuse against the former student.

The case is the first of what could be 14 criminal trials against the former teacher, who is charged with more than 120 counts in all.

Pierre Farmer, one of four alternate jurors excused after Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman sent the jury into deliberations, said he believed the testimony of a 34-year-old woman who said Mr. Merzbacher raped her too many times to count while she was a student at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore.

But the alternate juror said questions remained with him about why the school's principal then was not called by either side to testify. The woman said she had told the principal, a nun, about the alleged abuse.

"If I had stayed with the jury, I probably would've gone home and thought about it" overnight, Mr. Farmer said.

In closing arguments yesterday, prosecutors urged jurors to imagine how the woman must have feared Mr. Merzbacher, who, according to testimony, kept the woman quiet for years by threatening her with a gun he had fired in class.

But defense lawyer M. Cristina Gutierrez told jurors they shouldn't believe a woman who had scant recollections of such traumatic events. She emphasized that time and again, witnesses had testified that even at age 11, the student was assertive, outgoing and able to speak her mind.

"You can't flinch from the details and wait 23 years," Ms. Gutierrez said. "You can't do it."

Ms. Gutierrez displayed an enlarged copy of an evaluation a nun had written about the woman when she was an eighth-grader. It described the girl as "extremely mature" and as "often bossy with other students, has engendered fear."

In reply, Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May said those descriptions made perfect sense. "Extremely mature?" Ms. May said. "I guess so. He taught her some things she didn't need to know at that age."

Each side blamed the other for not calling Sister Eileen Weisman, principal at the time of the alleged rapes, to the stand. And each said it was the other's responsibility. Neither offered a further explanation.

The 34-year-old woman testified that she twice told Sister Eileen that Merzbacher had abused her. The first time, she said, the nun told her to go on with her life. The second time, the principal reportedly said, "People change."

Nonetheless, the woman kept trying to tell of the alleged abuse, Ms. May said; she went to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and consulted a friend who was a police officer, though she did not formally report her allegations to police until 1993.

"She goes back repeatedly to the people who know the most, who are supposed to care the most, and who were responsible for the hiring of John Merzbacher," Ms. May said.

The jury heard only evidence about the 34-year-old woman's allegations.

When Ms. May referred in her closing argument to "horrific, ugly things" happening to "children," Ms. Gutierrez objected.

The judge told jurors they were to interpret "children" as referring only to the woman.

That frustrated some of the woman's friends, family members and classmates, many of whom packed the courtroom yesterday to see the case conclude. "All these people aren't coming up here lying," said a 32-year-old man who lived with Mr. Merzbacher for nearly four years and alleges sexual abuse. "There's so much more to it."

His case is to be the next tried.

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