Jury chosen for sex-abuse trial of defrocked priest Blackwell

Opening statements expected to start today

February 11, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

With 16 men and women selected yesterday as jurors and alternates, opening statements in the trial of a defrocked Baltimore priest accused of molesting a young parishioner who later shot him are expected to begin this morning.

Maurice Blackwell, 58, is charged with four counts of sexual child abuse in the alleged molestation of Dontee Stokes, 29, between 1989 and 1992.

At the time, Blackwell was the powerful and popular minister of St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore, and Stokes was a youth group leader who says he considered Blackwell a mentor and father figure.

Blackwell said Tuesday that he is innocent.

The trial began yesterday with a full day of jury selection. The Baltimore Circuit Court jury commissioner set aside 300 potential jurors - five times the typical number - because the case has received national media attention.

Assistant State's Attorney Jo Anne Stanton and defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell selected 12 jurors and four alternates from the first group of 75 people questioned yesterday.

The jury includes five African-American women, three African-American men, three white men and one white woman.

Selections began about 10 a.m. yesterday when the potential jurors filed into one of the larger courtrooms in Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger opened the voir dire - a French phrase meaning "to speak the truth" - with questions about whether any of the potential jurors were acquainted with or conducted business with anyone in the case.

Potential jurors were to stand if they answered yes.

Berger then ticked through a list of several dozen witnesses, including members of the Stokes family, several doctors, and Stokes' ex-fiancee, Tiffany Taft.

He asked whether any jurors felt that they could not be impartial because of Blackwell's race. No one stood. He asked whether anyone's beliefs about the Roman Catholic Church or priests might impede them from rendering a fair verdict. Six people rose.

As voir dire continued through the afternoon, the state's star witness, Stokes, paced the hallways outside the fourth-floor courtroom. Flanked by numerous relatives, Stokes said he was glad the trial was about to begin. It has been postponed six times since Blackwell was indicted in May 2003.

"This trial has been a shackle around my feet," he said.

Stokes shot Blackwell in May 2002 in Reservoir Hill, where they both live. Stokes was acquitted of attempted-murder charges that year. He served 18 months of home detention for weapons violations.

Stokes said during his trial that he shot the former priest because Blackwell had ignored him. Stokes said he had been seeking an apology.

In 1993, at age 17, Stokes reported claims of abuse to a counselor, who called police. Prosecutors declined to press charges at the time, saying there was no corroborating evidence, and Blackwell was returned to his parish. Stokes' relatives said they were shunned.

At a news conference Tuesday, Blackwell asserted his innocence, described his accuser as mentally disturbed and chastised the church for abandoning him.

Blackwell was stripped of his church authority in 1998, after admitting a sexual relationship with another teenage boy in the early 1970s. That man is said to be on the state's witness list in Blackwell's trial.

The archdiocese announced in December that Pope John Paul II had defrocked Blackwell in an irrevocable decree. The pope decided in October to dismiss Blackwell from the clerical state, said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine.

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