Prosecutors to seek life for ex-teacher in rapes of student

July 21, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Prosecutors in the John J. Merzbacher case will ask a Baltimore Circuit judge today to sentence the former Catholic school teacher to life in prison for raping and abusing a student over three years in the 1970s.

In a sentencing hearing, Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman will hear from friends of Merzbacher, 53, who will describe "kindness, generosity and service to others," according to a defense memorandum. He will also hear from the victim, Elizabeth Ann Murphy of Cockeysville.

A jury on June 9 convicted Merzbacher of one count of rape, three counts of statutory rape, and one count each of perverted sexual practices and sexual child abuse of Ms. Murphy, his student at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore from 1972 to 1975.

Merzbacher still is charged with more than 100 similar counts involving 13 other men and women, most of them also former Catholic Community students. But prosecutors have told the judge and the accusers that they intend to drop those charges after today's sentencing.

A sentencing memorandum by prosecutors Sharon A. H. May and Roberta G. Siskind said they will argue that Merzbacher should be sentenced to life for each of the four rape charges because his victim was only 11 when he began abusing her, and because as her teacher he was in a position of trust. "The defendant must be made to pay for that pain," they wrote. "Time does not alter the elements of the crimes."

Ms. Murphy will ask the judge to impose a sentence that would ensure Merzbacher stays in prison for at least 20 years because she had been "imprisoned by the memories and trauma inflicted on me as a child," according to the memorandum.

The prosecutors said Merzbacher should serve the four terms concurrently, meaning they would count as only one sentence for parole. With that sentence, Merzbacher would be eligible for parole in about 12 years, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a Parole Commission spokesman.

In their memorandum, defense attorneys made no recommendation on prison time and maintained Merzbacher's innocence.

"Any measure of incarceration will be extraordinarily difficult and tantamount to a life sentence," wrote attorneys M. Cristina Gutierrez and William Kanwisher. "He has already suffered enormously. He has lost his job, his union office, his reputation and his standing in the community."

By prosecutors' calculations, nonbinding Maryland Sentencing Guidelines would call for a term of 43 to 80.5 years for the rape and statutory rape charges, with the others running concurrently.

Using a different measure, defense attorneys calculate the sentence range as six months to eight years for the most serious rape charge, with lesser amounts for other counts.

The prosecution and defense concede that the guidelines may not apply because the crimes were committed before they were adopted. Prosecutors say the guidelines do not take into account repeated acts of rape Ms. Murphy described. But Ms. Gutierrez said the guidelines should apply because Merzbacher was charged 23 years after the fact.

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