Ex-priest wins new trial in molestation case

Judge's decision cites improper testimony

April 09, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Maurice Blackwell, the former West Baltimore Roman Catholic priest convicted of molesting a one-time choirboy, was granted a new trial yesterday because of improper testimony in his first trial.

The ruling by the Baltimore Circuit Court judge who oversaw Blackwell's trial marked the latest twist in a case that first grabbed headlines three years ago with a Reservoir Hill shooting at the height of the American Catholic Church's priest abuse scandal.

Blackwell, 59, was convicted in February on three counts of sexual child abuse after a trial marred by what Judge Stuart R. Berger determined yesterday were errors that made justice impossible for the once-popular priest.

Berger granted the defense motion for a new trial based largely on testimony by two Baltimore detectives and the alleged victim, Dontee Stokes, that referred to other people allegedly molested by Blackwell.

"Regrettably, the bell has been rung by the repeated references to other victims," Berger wrote. "This court finds it difficult -- if not impossible -- to unring that bell that had already been rung improperly by three of the state's witnesses."

It is unusual, attorneys and law professors said, for a judge to grant a retrial motion. But Berger set the stage for doing so during Blackwell's trial when he said in a hearing after court one day that he had failed to prevent jurors from hearing testimony about other victims.

Stokes, now 29, watched the oral arguments yesterday but left the courthouse when he learned of the judge's decision. He could not be reached for comment.

"He is disappointed that the voice of those 12 jurors was abolished," said his lawyer, Warren A. Brown. "But he looks forward to testifying again."

Prosecutors "will review the case and make a determination at a later date as to whether or not to proceed," said Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the city state's attorney's office.

Defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell said Blackwell had been praying for this outcome and was "very excited and happy" to learn of the judge's ruling. Ravenell said he will seek a hearing with Administrative Judge John M. Glynn on Monday to schedule a new trial date, which he anticipated could come in three or four months.

Stokes accused Blackwell of fondling him when he was a teenage parishioner at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church -- abuse that Stokes said culminated in a sodomy attempt when he was 17 in 1993. An investigation at the time was closed because prosecutors said they could find no corroborating evidence for Stokes' story.

In May 2002, Stokes shot Blackwell outside the former priest's Reservoir Hill home. A Baltimore jury convicted Stokes of a minor weapons violation but acquitted him of the more serious assault and attempted murder charges.

Soon after, the state's attorney's office sought to indict Blackwell on Stokes' long-dormant claims.

During the weeklong trial, Stokes and the two detectives who investigated Blackwell spoke of other victims, testimony that Berger instructed jurors to ignore.

Arguing against the motion for a new trial during a hearing yesterday morning, Assistant State's Attorney Jo Anne Stanton said that Berger "properly addressed" concerns about fairness throughout the trial.

In interviews after the verdict, two of the 12 jurors said they did not consider the possibility of other victims during their deliberations. Most of the others declined to comment.

But Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore criminal law professor who taught Berger and remains friendly with him, said repeated mentions of others -- even though the judge addressed them -- crossed the line of fairness.

"We have a system where, if we convict you, we want it to be only because of the evidence in your one particular case, not because of your prior bad acts," Warnken said.

"We do not want to convict you because 10 other people said you did 10 other naughty things and where there's smoke there's fire."

Blackwell was stripped of his church authority in 1998 after admitting to having a sexual relationship with another teenage boy in the early 1970s. For that reason, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced in December that Pope John Paul II had defrocked Blackwell in an irrevocable decree.

The teenage boy -- now a 50-year-old Louisiana resident named Robert A. Martin -- had paced the courthouse halls during Blackwell's trial, waiting to be called as a witness. But Berger ruled that Martin's testimony would be too prejudicial.

Even so, Baltimore Police Lt. Frederick V. Roussey and Detective Shawn Harrison both told jurors they had interviewed other possible victims.

In his 17-page written opinion issued yesterday, Berger said the detectives offered unsolicited testimony that indicated they may have had an agenda.

For example, when the prosecutor asked Harrison, "How long did your investigation take?" she answered, "Including the interview of Dontee and several other alleged victims, approximately ...."

"The state's witnesses -- improperly -- attempted to enhance the credibility of the state's critical witness by injecting references to other victims into this proceeding," Berger wrote.

Ravenell said yesterday that he was pleased the judge "did not allow any renegade police officers to control a trial."

Neither Roussey nor Harrison could be reached yesterday.

The judge decided yesterday that although the detectives' conduct merited a new trial for Blackwell, he would not initiate contempt proceedings against them, as he had threatened to do.

Berger said during the trial that Roussey and Harrison had violated a sequestration order by giving media interviews in which they repeated their belief that Blackwell may have had other victims.

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