Blackwell jury struggles to reach a verdict

Judge in ex-priest's trial dismisses jurors for day

After 5 hours, `What do we do?'

Panel to resume discussion in child sex-abuse case

February 17, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

After more than five hours of deliberation, jurors in the sexual child abuse case of a defrocked Baltimore priest sent the judge a note yesterday saying they could not agree on a decision - raising the possibility of a hung jury and mistrial.

The judge sent the jurors home for the evening, ordering them to return to the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse this morning to try again to reach a verdict in the trial of Maurice Blackwell. The former priest is charged with four counts of sexual child abuse, accused of molesting Dontee Stokes from 1989 to 1992 at St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore.

Stokes, who sang in the youth choir and led the church youth group, shot Blackwell in May 2002. Now 29, Stokes was acquitted of attempted murder charges, and Blackwell, 58, was soon after indicted on the abuse charges.

The note from the 12 jurors came at 4:40 p.m. yesterday: "Jury unable to agree on any of the counts. What do we do? How do we proceed?"

After dismissing the jurors for the day, Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger told lawyers he would read them an instruction on their duty to deliberate when they return this morning.

If jurors are unable to reach a unanimous verdict after further deliberation, Berger could declare a mistrial, meaning that prosecutors would have to decide whether to retry the case.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blackwell's lawyer, said he is happy the jury is considering the evidence that was presented, particularly given the substantial publicity surrounding the case.

"This is very difficult for him," Ravenell said about Blackwell as they left the courthouse last night. "It has been very difficult for many years. He's still in the waiting process."

The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced in December that Blackwell had been defrocked in an irrevocable decree by Pope John Paul II. In 1998, Blackwell was stripped of his church authority after admitting to sexual involvement with a teen-age boy in the 1970s.

Jurors did not directly hear about the previous relationship or the defrocking during three days of testimony.

Assistant State's Attorney Jo Anne Stanton said in her closing argument yesterday morning that Stokes had "nothing to gain and everything to lose" by continuing to make allegations against Blackwell, one of the first African-American priests ordained in Baltimore in 1974.

Stokes first alleged the molestation in 1993, but prosecutors declined to charge Blackwell at the time, saying they didn't have enough evidence. His claims resurfaced after the shooting in 2002, and for the first time Stokes' disclosed allegations of a sex act and an attempted rape.

"Nobody really wanted to believe it was Blackwell who did this," Stanton said.

She also countered a defense argument that Stokes' history of psychological ailments, including delusions and out-of-body experiences, made him an unreliable witness. "If there are vulnerabilities," she said, "as a child, he becomes the perfect victim."

She added that "it's not surprising that Dontee Stokes would be questioning reality," given the things that he said Blackwell did to him.

In his hour-long closing, Ravenell hammered on questions about Stokes' credibility and weaknesses in the investigations in 1993 and 2002.

"There is absolutely, positively, no corroboration of anything that Stokes has told you," Ravenell said to jurors. "None."

He reminded them that not one of the five church leaders he brought in as defense witnesses had ever been interviewed by police or prosecutors. Each of them, including the choir director and several youth ministers, said they'd never seen any questionable interactions between Stokes and Blackwell.

"Are they all in cahoots against Dontee Stokes?" Ravenell asked.

The defense has suggested that Stokes fabricated the molestation story, in part to rationalize psychological conflicts about his sexual orientation. Ravenell said Stokes' allegations of the more serious sex acts were made only to bolster his defense against the attempted- murder charges.

"That case is over," Stanton said in her rebuttal closing arguments. "Why is [Stokes] still going forward?"

As the two lawyers addressed the jury for the final time in the case, Stokes sat in the front bench of the courtroom audience, often staring at Blackwell, who sat at the defense table with his cane by his side.

A few rows back, listening attentively with his arms folded across his chest, was the man whose accusations against Blackwell in 1998 led to his removal from the church. The judge barred the man Tuesday from taking the witness stand, saying his testimony about Blackwell's prior misdeeds would have prejudiced the jury.

Jurors began deliberating at 11:20 a.m. yesterday, taking their lunch break inside the jury room. The first of their two questions was delivered to the judge just before 4 p.m. Their note read, "Coffee, ice, water, soda?"

The judge wrote back that he was unable to provide them anything but water. Less than an hour later, they delivered their second note, indicating that they could not reach a unanimous verdict.

They filed out of the courthouse, escorted by sheriff's deputies.

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