Judge in Blackwell case worries about fair trial

He holds contempt hearing on `other victims' remarks

February 16, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The judge in the sexual child abuse case of Maurice Blackwell said yesterday that he was struggling to maintain a fair trial for the defrocked priest and chastised two detectives who have made references on the witness stand and in front of television cameras to "other victims."

After the jury left the courtroom, Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger held a hearing to determine whether the two detectives should be found in contempt of court. A decision is expected later, but the judge said he was "outraged" by the investigators' conduct.

"I have tried, and I have failed," Berger said of his efforts to keep jurors from hearing references to other victims. "That concerns me deeply."

Blackwell's trial has attracted national attention because his alleged victim, a one-time altar boy at St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore, shot him in May 2002, at the height of the priest abuse scandal in the American Catholic church. Dontee Stokes, 29, was acquitted of attempted murder, and now Blackwell, 58, is facing four counts of sexual child abuse for allegedly molesting Stokes as a teen-ager from 1989 to 1992.

Testimony concluded yesterday and closing arguments are expected this morning. Blackwell did not testify yesterday.

In televised interviews after testifying Monday, Detective Shawn Harrison and Lt. Frederick Roussey mentioned the possibility of other victims. When they had made similar references on the stand, Berger instructed the jury to disregard those statements. Defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell asked for a mistrial because of the statements, but Berger denied the request.

The contempt hearing came on a day when Ravenell began and ended his presentation and a rebuttal witness whom the prosecutor said was molested by Blackwell as a teenager was barred from testifying.

That man's allegations, made in 1998 about a sexual relationship in the 1970s, led the Archdiocese of Baltimore to remove Blackwell from St. Edward. In October, Pope John Paul II defrocked Blackwell, who was one of the first African-American priests to be ordained in Baltimore.

The jury was not present during arguments concerning the witness and Berger ruled that testimony from the man could lead jurors to punish Blackwell for misdeeds other than the ones with which he is charged.

The defense's case began with five former leaders at St. Edward who testified that they never saw unusual interaction between Blackwell and Stokes. The witnesses - including the youth minister and choir director who oversaw Stokes' main church activities, and another man who lived in the church rectory during the period of alleged abuse - said they have never been interviewed by police or prosecutors.

Timothy McLaurin Jr., Blackwell's cousin, said he lived in the rectory with Blackwell from 1992 to 1998. Earlier, Stokes had testified that McLaurin summoned Stokes to Blackwell's living quarters the day of the worst incident of alleged abuse - a sex act and an attempted rape.

McLaurin disputed that account and testified that he could not recall Stokes ever being inside the rectory's living quarters or being alone with Blackwell.

As he did with each of the church witnesses, Ravenell ended his line of questioning by asking whether police or prosecutors had ever interviewed McLaurin, either in 1993 when the allegations surfaced or in 2002 when Stokes' trial renewed them.

"Never. No one ever talked to me," McLaurin replied.

Although attorneys Warren A. Brown and William H. Murphy - both of whom represented Stokes at various points - were on Ravenell's list of potential witnesses, neither testified. Brown successfully defended Stokes against attempted murder charges in December 2002. Stokes was convicted of weapons violations and served a sentence of home detention.

Blackwell's attorney did call two psychiatrists to discuss Stokes' mental health.

An expert forensic psychiatrist testified that Stokes has exhibited so many symptoms of mental illness that either he was afflicted with severe psychosis or was pretending to be.

Dr. Neil Blumberg did not personally examine Stokes, but he said he reviewed Stokes' testimony from his attempted murder trial and numerous psychiatric reports, including more than 400 pages of notes from Dr. Michael Spodak, a psychiatrist who interviewed Stokes just before his trial.

Spodak was hired by Brown, Stokes' defense attorney, to assess, in part, Stokes' competency to stand trial.

Blumberg read to the jury portions from Spodak's exam of Stokes, conducted in summer 2002. Stokes told Spodak that he sometimes felt as though he were Jesus Christ, sensed there were demons around him, and that he heard voices and saw visions.

If Stokes genuinely was experiencing all of those symptoms, Blumberg testified, "that strongly suggests he is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality."

Another psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Siebert, testified that he had interviewed Stokes in 1993 and again in 2002. Siebert said he could detect no signs of sexual trauma in Stokes, but said Stokes did seem to have sexual identity issues that began when he was a young child. Stokes told him, Siebert testified, about sexual experiences with both boys and girls when he was in grade school.

The defense has suggested that Stokes fabricated the story that he was molested by Blackwell, in part to rationalize psychological conflicts about his sexual orientation.

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