Testimony in Blackwell case didn't go by the book

February 23, 2005|By Gregory Kane

DID DEFROCKED Roman Catholic priest Maurice Blackwell walk out of a kangaroo court last week?

Well, maybe kangaroo court is a little harsh. But there are those who believe that Blackwell - who was convicted last week of abusing Dontee Stokes - didn't get a fair trial. Not surprisingly, one of them is Blackwell's lawyer, attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell.

"He obviously didn't receive a fair trial," Ravenell said yesterday. "It's really difficult for anyone in this climate to receive a fair trial."

The climate Ravenell referred to is the one in which nearly every Catholic priest is under scrutiny, suspected of possibly being a child molester by virtue of his occupation. That suspicion lingers, no matter how many Catholics say time and again that the priests they knew growing up were straight shooters, moral and honest men who would never molest a child.

But in the current climate - and admittedly, the church itself is to blame for much of it - we even had potential jurors saying they couldn't be objective because of the religion of the defendant and Stokes, the state's star witness. Who would have thought that in the year 2005 some folks would openly confess to anti-Catholic bigotry?

None of the jurors in the Blackwell case can be accused of such bigotry. The issue is whether they heard testimony that shouldn't have been uttered in court.

On the second day of the trial, after Stokes had given his testimony, Lt. Frederick V. Roussey took the stand as a prosecution witness. These days, Roussey is president of Baltimore's police union. In 1993, when he interviewed Stokes, he was a detective in the child abuse unit.

Roussey included in his testimony that he believed Stokes was "credible" and that he had interviewed "other possible victims" of Blackwell. Judge Stuart R. Berger ordered jurors to disregard the remarks.

He might as well have told lava to flow uphill and slide back down a volcano.

Detective Shawn Harrison, testifying after Roussey, interviewed Stokes after he shot Blackwell in 2002. Harrison also mentioned, on the stand, Blackwell's alleged "other victims."

Ravenell objected and called for a mistrial. Berger rejected Ravenell's motion but made it clear a day later that he wasn't at all happy with Roussey and Harrison and considered holding both in contempt. Ravenell said the law is clear about the propriety of the testimony of Roussey and Harrison.

"These are experienced detectives who have testified before," Ravenell said. "Any detective knows you're not allowed to mention other victims or alleged victims during the trial. Police officers came into this case with an agenda and were willing to ignore the law to achieve that agenda."

Ravenell said that in Roussey's case, it wasn't just a matter of mentioning "other victims." Roussey was out of line when he made remarks about Stokes being "credible," Ravenell said.

"The issue of credibility is within the province of the jury and the jury alone," Ravenell said. Roussey's statements, Ravenell added, "clearly impinge on the jury's right to make that determination."

I can see what's bugging Ravenell. And for me, it isn't an issue of Blackwell's guilt or innocence. It's about doing things by the book. And both the judge and the defense attorney have said that in the Blackwell case, things weren't done by the book.

The jurors who heard the case did things by the book. They got their summonses in the mail. They showed up in court and heard a judge give them a fine speech about how they were doing their duty. Then they went to the jurors' waiting room, answered questions about their lives that, frankly, are neither the city's nor the state's business, and then signed on the dotted line to receive their money.

They went through a lengthy voir dire process and then showed up each day, on time, to sit through an emotional and gut-wrenching trial none of them probably wanted any part of. Somewhere along the way, Berger probably told them they had to weigh the evidence in the case and no doubt explained to them what evidence is.

If going by the book is good enough for them, it's certainly good enough for Roussey and Harrison. And sneaking inadmissible evidence into the courtroom isn't going by the book.

Sure, we can say that Berger corrected the matter when he instructed jurors to disregard the testimony. But the same testimony? Twice?

"How do you expect jurors to ignore that?" Ravenell asked. "You can't."

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