Lawyer wants city grand jury to hear Stokes

Wants to present account of Blackwell's shooting

`We just think it's ... fair'

Attorney hopes panel will refuse to indict

May 25, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In an unusual and risky legal maneuver, a lawyer for Dontee D. Stokes said yesterday he wants the 26-year-old man charged with shooting a Catholic priest to testify before the city's grand jury, in the hope the panel will refuse to indict Stokes because he says he was sexually abused by the priest.

Warren A. Brown, attorney for Stokes, sent a letter yesterday to State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy requesting that his client be allowed to "give his account of the events that led up to his arrest" before the grand jury, which is expected to hear the case before the scheduled June 11 preliminary hearing.

"The history of this case reveals that Dontee has had institution after institution turn their backs on him and treat him unfairly," Brown said in the letter.

Stokes is charged with attempted murder and handgun violations in the shooting May 13 of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, 56, a popular West Baltimore priest who was removed from active ministry in 1998 after admitting to a sexual relationship years earlier with another minor. Blackwell was briefly removed from St. Edward Catholic Church in 1993 after Stokes accused him of fondling him, but was not criminally charged.

Police records show that investigators believed Stokes' story in 1993, but that prosecutors did not think they had enough evidence to make criminal charges against Blackwell stick.

Soon after he began investigating the abuse allegations in August 1993, Detective Frederick V. Roussey repeatedly pressed prosecutors Sharon A.H. May and Roberta G. Siskind to authorize Blackwell's arrest, saying they all would be to blame "if Father Blackwell molests another child while we stand by and do nothing," according to the records.

Roussey had heard rumors about Blackwell in interviews, and strongly felt Blackwell had done more than just fondle Stokes. But prosecutors told Roussey they wanted to see Stokes' school and medical records before they approached Blackwell.

By late September, May and Siskind closed the case because investigators had found no evidence to corroborate Stokes' accusations.

At a news conference in Brown's office, the lawyer noted that grand jury proceedings are one-sided affairs, where only prosecutors present evidence.

"We just think it's wise and fair to give them a panoramic understanding of all that's involved and not simply, as they're wont to do, take a police officer in there, let him read from the statement of charges and then ask the grand jury to indict this young man," he said.

Stokes has no right to appear before the grand jury, which hears evidence presented by the prosecutor and decides whether sufficient evidence exists to establish "probable cause" that a crime occurred. A suspect's appearance is at the discretion of the prosecutor, and attorneys are not allowed in the room.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy, said that because grand jury proceedings are secret, she could not comment on Brown's request.

Speaking generally about the grand jury process, Burns said that "prosecutors have discretion to call victims and witnesses. They have in the past, although infrequently, called the suspect to come into the grand jury.

"However, the state's attorney's office will not respond to pressure to move this case quickly through the criminal justice system or to treat this case differently because of any special circumstances," she said.

It is rare for suspects to appear before grand juries, but Brown said he has successfully used this tactic twice. In 1997, when a church deacon fatally shot a man in the coffeehouse at Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, the deacon avoided indictment after being allowed to give his account of the incident to a grand jury. And about a month ago, a man Brown represents had his charges reduced from first- and second-degree murder to manslaughter after a grand jury appearance.

Brown also provided more detail yesterday about the day Stokes encountered Blackwell near the priest's Reservoir Hill home and allegedly shot him. Stokes was driving by that afternoon to take a gun to a relative's home, "to get it away from children who had moved in to live with him," the attorney said. Stokes has told police he bought the gun for protection about a month before.

As he drove by Blackwell's house in the 700 block of Reservoir St., Stokes saw a female cousin speaking with the priest. He drove around the block and by the time he returned, his cousin had left. Stokes decided to pull over and speak with Blackwell.

Stokes simply wanted Blackwell to apologize, Brown said, so Stokes could forgive him and move on with his life. Instead, Blackwell "rebukes him," the lawyer said, "He treats him in a disrespectful manner. And then he's shot. It's just a snap."

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