The state's highest court denied a new trial yesterday to a former Catholic schoolteacher sentenced to life for repeatedly raping and sexually abusing a student, but ruled that his victim and more than a dozen others alleging abuse had waited too long to sue him.
John Joseph Merzbacher Jr. was sentenced to four concurrent life terms in 1995 after he was convicted of rape, statutory rape and perverted sex practices against Elizabeth Ann Murphy, one of his students at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore from 1972 to 1975.
Prosecutors filed more than 100 criminal charges against Merzbacher involving 13 other accusers, but dropped them after he was sentenced.
A multimillion-dollar suit brought against Merzbacher, 55, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore by Murphy and the other former students was dismissed in 1995 by Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who ruled that it was filed too late under Maryland's three-year statute of limitations.
The plaintiffs appealed that dismissal and Merzbacher appealed his criminal convictions.
The Court of Appeals affirmed both lower court decisions in separate rulings yesterday, agreeing that the plaintiffs took too long to sue and saying that Merzbacher was given a fair trial.
A spokesman for the Maryland attorney general declined to comment on the criminal case and the archdiocese lawyer was unavailable yesterday. But the plaintiffs' lawyer called dismissal of the civil suit "a tragedy."
"It sends a terrible message because if means if you abuse a victim and rape a victim, you can get away with it if you threaten your victims and instill in them enough fear," said Joanne L. Suder, the plaintiffs' lawyer.
Suder argued that Merzbacher's victims should have been excused from the three-year deadline because he had used a gun to threaten their lives if they ever told anyone about the alleged abuse. Even two decades later, they didn't feel safe until he was indicted and jailed in January 1994, Suder said.
In the majority opinion of a 5-2 court decision, Judge Robert L. Karwacki wrote that Merzbacher's students waited too long after reaching adulthood to file suit.
"There was absolutely no evidence that Merzbacher made any threats to the appellants or that he engaged in any overt acts after 1980, and consequently during the three-year period which followed their attaining the age of majority," Karwacki said.
In a stinging dissent, Judge John C. Eldridge called the decision "unconscionable."
"To allow Merzbacher to profit from his successful egregious criminal conduct is outrageous," he said.
Eldridge devoted much of his 37-page dissent to describing details of what Merzbacher did to each student and his threats made at gunpoint.
He was joined in the dissent by Judge Irma S. Raker.
In the criminal case, the court ruled that although Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman's jury instructions might not have been perfect, they passed constitutional muster.
"While the instruction provided by the trial court below was perhaps slightly anemic, we cannot conclude that, in its entirety, it understated the state's burden of proof," Karwacki wrote in a 26-page ruling.
Pub Date: 7/29/97