State's highest court to hear Stokes appeal of handgun conviction

He says judge mishandled jury in trial last year

December 03, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The case of Dontee Stokes, the man who shot a priest last year who he said molested him, will be heard Friday by the Maryland Court of Appeals, as Stokes argues to have a minor handgun conviction overturned because of what he considers a judge's error.

Legal scholars say the court's decision will likely set a state precedent in cases that involve the insanity defense.

Stokes admitted to shooting his former clergyman, the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, three times on a West Baltimore street, but he was acquitted last December of attempted murder and other serious charges. Instead, the jury convicted him of illegally carrying a handgun, and he completed an 18-month home detention sentence.

From a jury standpoint, the case was unusual because four alternate jurors were allowed to join the deliberations with the 12 regular jury members. Typically, alternate jurors are dismissed by the judge at the conclusion of the trial and before deliberations begin.

Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown, argued in a brief to the Court of Appeals that Stokes' rights were violated because the extra jurors might have had an effect in the jury room. "This is a violation of jury impartiality, privacy and secrecy of the highest magnitude," Brown wrote.

The Maryland attorney general's office argued in an opposing brief that the supposed violation is irrelevant because Stokes admitted during the trial to having the gun.

"Stokes' request ... should be squarely rejected ... [because of] Stokes' unequivocal admission of guilt," reads the brief.

On May 13 last year, Stokes drove to Blackwell's Reservoir Hill home and shot Blackwell after briefly confronting him about the alleged abuse, which he said had occurred a decade earlier. Blackwell, who lost part of his hand and suffered hip injuries in the attack, has denied the allegations of abuse. He was charged this year with sex abuse and is scheduled for trial in March.

In Stokes' trial last December, Judge John N. Prevas allowed the alternates to deliberate with the jury for a few hours, then told the alternates they should remain in the room but not offer input.

Alternate jurors essentially serve as backups in case one of the 12 members of the jury panel becomes ill or cannot continue.

Prevas said at the time that the extra jurors were not dismissed because the case had a twist - Stokes' lawyer filed a motion asking that Stokes be found not criminally responsible for the crime.

That meant that the case was "bifurcated," or broken into two phases. In the first phase, the jury had to decide whether to convict Stokes; in the second phase, the jury had the task of determining if he was criminally responsible.

Prevas said yesterday that he did not want to dismiss any jurors during the first phase in case he needed them for the second phase. He noted that there is little guidance in Maryland law about what to do with alternates during the first phase of the trial.

Maryland Rule 4-314 says: "Alternates shall be retained throughout the trial," though it does not specify how.

"I just made my best guess as to how to handle it," Prevas said.

The case never reached the second phase. After Stokes was acquitted of the most serious charges, Brown withdrew his request to present an insanity defense.

Legal scholars say the case will be closely watched.

"The Court of Appeals is considering a novel issue in Maryland," said Michael Millemann, a professor who teaches criminal procedure and other courses at the University of Maryland School of Law. "I think Stokes has a strong argument that having an additional four jurors deliberate for part of the time is a serious constitutional error."

Ordinarily, an appeal would be heard first by the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's lower appellate court. But the Court of Appeals, which is Maryland's highest court, took the unusual step of hearing the case out of turn. The court did not explain why it took the case.

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