100 charges to be dropped in sex case

June 27, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Prosecutors in the John Joseph Merzbacher case now intend to dismiss more than 100 pending sexual-abuse charges against the former Catholic school teacher after he is sentenced next month, angering some alleged victims who say they have a right to tell their stories to a jury.

The planned dismissals could bring a swift end to what was to be a long series of prosecutions against Merzbacher, who is accused of abusing former students and other teen-agers while a teacher at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore from 1972 to 1979.

Merzbacher, 53, was convicted June 8 of six counts of rape and sexual abuse of Elizabeth Ann Murphy, a 34-year-old Cockeysville woman who was his student from 1972 to 1975. But cases involving 13 other men and women are pending.

"The state is not planning to proceed with further trials in light of the tremendous victory in Elizabeth Murphy's case," prosecutors Sharon A. H. May and Roberta G. Siskind wrote last week to one alleged victim they had not been able to reach by telephone.

They wrote that Merzbacher faced the potential of four life sentences in the Murphy case.

"Although Judge [Robert I. H.] Hammerman is the only person who decides the sentence and could give the defendant significantly less time, we feel confident that the defendant will receive a substantial sentence," the letter said.

Yesterday was to be the beginning of the next trial, involving the accusations of a now 32-year-old man who lived with Merzbacher for nearly four years as a teen-ager. Instead, Ms. May asked that the case be postponed. She said she would notify the court how she planned to proceed on the remaining cases after Merzbacher is sentenced in the Murphy case July 21.

The alleged victims involved in those charges began receiving phone calls from prosecutors last week about the possibility that their cases would be dropped.

They were notified of the final decision when they received letters from prosecutors last weekend.

A number of those men and women said yesterday they were angry at the prosecution's stated intention and that they still had not been given an adequate explanation for it.

They said they resented the notion of spending the rest of their lives as "alleged" victims, with no opportunity to have a jury determine the truth of their stories.

"I was dumped," said a 31-year-old woman who told police Merzbacher forced her to have sex with him at least twice a week while she was a student. "I am just as much a victim. Why can't I have my day in court?

"The state's attorney's office has worked very hard on this case. Because they've worked so hard, it makes it even more confusing."

A 29-year-old man who told police Merzbacher grabbed him sexually and tried to make him perform sexual acts said: "It's a part of my life that's going to remain unresolved. I deserve to be heard. I've been suppressed by him through fear my whole life." The Sun does not identify victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse. After the convictions in her case earlier this month, Ms. Murphy allowed her name to be used.

Ms. May would not comment yesterday on the letters or the reasons for her intention.

Asked about what would happen if Merzbacher's convictions were overturned on appeal, she replied, "You try the case over again."

Prosecutors could change their minds after sentencing. And if they do dismiss charges, they could seek new indictments on the other cases if Merzbacher won a new trial and was acquitted in Ms. Murphy's case.

However, they likely would face a defense argument that the dropping and refiling of charges violated Merzbacher's right to a speedy trial.

M. Cristina Gutierrez, a lawyer for Merzbacher, called the intention to dismiss charges "a complete and utter surprise."

"There is no plea agreement," Ms. Gutierrez said. "There will never be a plea agreement. It appears clear to us the state has waved around the specter of other victims . . . and then turns around and [dismisses] them all."

Andrew Radding, a former assistant U.S. attorney who teaches at the University of Baltimore law school, said he understood the prosecution's strategy.

"I would guess the thinking is, we've convicted him -- if the conviction holds up on the legal issues, the sentence is what the sentence is supposed to be," Mr. Radding said. "And if Judge Hammerman is not going to punish him harshly, why bang your head against the wall?"

He also pointed out that prosecutors could ask the judge to consider the other cases in his sentencing in the Murphy case, even though no other convictions have been obtained.

But alleged victims worried that even if Merzbacher receives a sentence of life in prison -- the maximum sentence allowed for the common-law rape and statutory rape charges -- he could be paroled in as little as 11 years.

"We can never get back what we lost as children," said Kathy Micolowski-Stinefelt, another alleged victim who said her name could be used. "I continue to lose more."

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