Ex-teacher receives life in rapes of his student

July 22, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Former Catholic school teacher John J. Merzbacher left Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday still proclaiming his innocence, after a judge sentenced him to life in prison for "dastardly crimes -- crimes beyond the comprehension of rational people."

Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman sentenced Merzbacher, 53, to four life terms for rape and statutory rape for the abuse of Elizabeth Ann Murphy, a Cockeysville woman who was Merzbacher's student at Catholic Community Middle School in the 1970s. He also received a 10-year sentence for perverted sexual practice.

The sentences are to be served concurrently, meaning that under current guidelines, he must serve 12 years before he is considered for parole. However, few prisoners serving life sentences are paroled at that stage.

"I have always regarded teaching to be the most honorable profession of all," Judge Hammerman said. "For all of us to face a moment such as this is a tragedy for the entire community."

He noted that he had tears in his eyes listening to the tortured testimony of Merzbacher's wife, Gloria, as well as to Ms. Murphy's statement of how Merzbacher's crimes had indelibly marked her life.

Referring to a parade of 22 witnesses who testified yesterday to Merzbacher's good character, the judge said, "There is no question in my mind that you have many outstanding qualities and gifts to offer. I don't doubt . . . your care and compassion for friends. This makes the tragedy even greater."

Merzbacher, his hair cropped short, appeared to have aged in the month and a half he has been in the Baltimore City Detention Center.

He spoke only for a moment. "I have just one short statement to make to the court, and that is that I am innocent," he said.

A jury convicted Merzbacher June 8 of the charges, which were brought to trial a year and a half after he was arrested.

After a daylong hearing that was charged with emotion on all sides, the prevailing mood was exhaustion.

Ms. Murphy, 34, wore a sad, weary look as the judge announced the life sentences.

Earlier, she had wept when Judge Hammerman said Merzbacher had robbed her of her childhood, and "a lot more than that."

Mrs. Merzbacher, the defendant's wife of 28 years, ran from the courtroom, despite the judge's admonition for all to stay seated.

She had begged Judge Hammerman to give her husband hope: "John and I are one person . . . He would not do these things."

Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May announced she was dropping more than 100 pending charges involving 13 men and women who say they also were subjected to abuse by Merzbacher in the 1970s.

Then Ms. May walked slowly to the ladies' restroom, where several of Ms. Murphy's sisters sobbed and embraced her and Assistant State's Attorney Roberta G. Siskind.

Asked if she was surprised at the length of the sentence, Ms. May said, "You're always surprised when the judge agrees with you."

She said of Merzbacher: "He's 53. He won't go anywhere for a long, long time."

But some of the other accusers, who spent hours helping prosecutors prepare for trials involving them, said they still were disappointed that Merzbacher would not face more charges.

"There's a good chance he could still get out," said Linda Tiburzi, whose case was one of those that were dropped. "I think it should've been more time."

Ms. Tiburzi and Ms. Murphy gave permission for their names to be used.

The Sun normally does not name victims of sexual abuse.

Consecutive life sentences would have required Merzbacher to serve longer before getting any parole consideration.

However, there is far from a guarantee that he would be released at his first hearing in any event.

Ms. Murphy and a number of the accusers still have civil suits pending against Merzbacher and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Defense attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez argued that Merzbacher's relatively unblemished life since he left teaching in 1979 should influence the judge toward a more lenient sentence.

She asked Judge Hammerman to consider computations under Maryland's nonbinding sentencing guidelines that could have given her client less than 10 years in prison.

However, Judge Hammerman said the guidelines did not apply, because "there is no parallel to this case."

Earlier in the day, a number of Merzbacher's co-workers, neighbors and family members testified that they knew him only as a helpful, generous man who loved children.

Several women around Ms. Murphy's age said they had been alone with Merzbacher many times as children and never had a problem with him.

Merzbacher's daughter, Mia Ridgely, said her father taught her to ride a bicycle and to drive a car, and always was there when she needed him.

"I've never stopped believing in him," she said.

Ms. Murphy said she was sorry for Merzbacher's family, and that she got "no pleasure from looking at John Merzbacher today with shackles on his ankles.

"No amount of money in the world would make me subject myself to this process," she said.

Of the sentence, she said: "I am glad somebody finally heard and listened."

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