Dontee D. Stokes, who admitted shooting a Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually assaulting him nearly a decade ago, was acquitted last night of attempted murder in a Baltimore trial that drew national attention amid the church's unfolding sex scandal.
The jury of 11 women and one man took about eight hours to find Stokes, a 26-year-old West Baltimore barber, not guilty of attempted murder and five other counts that could have sent him to prison for life.
Jurors did, however, convict Stokes of three lesser handgun charges, which most likely will bring a sentence of probation.
Accompanying the verdict was a handwritten note from the jury, asking the judge for leniency during sentencing.
Moments later, Stokes hugged his lawyer, Warren A. Brown, and several of his family members broke down in tears and prayers.
"This is a statement not just for me, but for every person who has been abused by anyone," Stokes said as he walked out of the courthouse last night.
"This is a victory for all of them."
The man Stokes admitted shooting, the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, was not in the courtroom yesterday and could not be reached to comment.
Since May, when he was shot three times, Blackwell has refused to speak publicly about the case; he also refused to testify in court last week, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Prosecutor Sylvester Cox, who repeatedly told the jury that Stokes' actions should not be condoned, warned that the acquittal could send the wrong message.
Cox said he feared seekers of vigilante justice could declare "open season in Baltimore City."
"I don't want this to send a message in Baltimore City that you can go out there and resolve your differences with a handgun," said Cox, whose voice was partially drowned out by a mass of cheering Stokes supporters.
Dozens of Stokes family members rallied in front of the courthouse steps, chanting, "God is good all the time" and "A family that prays together, stays together."
Stokes said he has gone through an ordeal - first having been a victim of abuse and then having been doubted by authorities investigating his rape claims.
But he said his faith has not left him.
"God has been there for me through the beginning," he said. "Why would he leave me now?"
The emotionally charged trial, which saw jurors, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer all weep in court, included drama rarely seen in a Baltimore courtroom - a priest on the stand refusing to testify, and Stokes' claims to the jury that he shot the clergyman during an out-of-body experience.
At one point last week, Cardinal William H. Keeler, leader of America's oldest Roman Catholic diocese, took the stand moments after warmly shaking Stokes' hand and told the jury that he regrets being unable to prevent the alleged abuse.
Last night, Keeler issued a statement saying he is going to pray for Stokes; the cardinal did not mention Blackwell.
"With the decision of the jury tonight, one sad chapter is concluded, but there remains much healing ahead," Keeler said in the statement. "Many of us have been praying for this healing.
"My prayers are with Dontee Stokes and his family. He is a young man who has shown much promise; may God bless him now and in the days and years to come."
Stokes admitted that he shot Blackwell, the priest who baptized him, wounding the clergyman in the hand and hip.
Stokes testified that Blackwell raped him nine years ago and said that, at the time of the shooting, he was confronting the priest on a West Baltimore street to find "reconciliation."
He said in a police report that he became angry when the priest pretended to ignore him.
Out of body
Stokes testified that he felt "outside of my body" when he shot Blackwell and said he tried to reach for his own hand to stop himself from firing his silver-plated .357 Magnum handgun.
"This was not an intentional act of violence," Stokes said last night. "This was something that was a result of the violence that was done to me. I'm glad the jurors knew where my heart was at."
Brown, his attorney, told the jury the shooting was driven by a mental disorder Stokes had been suffering because of the alleged abuse.
He said yesterday that he believes his tactic of taking the blame away from Stokes was effective. He instead pointed the finger at the church for not defrocking Blackwell and the state's attorney's office for not prosecuting the priest.
Others on trial
"I put the state on trial, the church on trial and Blackwell on trial. The Dontee who pulled that trigger was their creation. If they had prosecuted Maurice Blackwell, we wouldn't be here," Brown said.
"The jury joined us in that sentiment."
Stokes said the jury "corrected a wrong" made by the state and Blackwell.
The jury acquitted Stokes of first-degree attempted murder, second-degree attempted murder, two felony assault charges, reckless endangerment and using a handgun to commit a felony.
The latter charge would have carried a mandatory five-year no-parole sentence.
He was convicted of minor handgun charges, two of which carry a maximum sentence of three years. The other carries a maximum sentence of one year.
The allegations of abuse surfaced in 1993 when Stokes told a therapist his priest raped him. The media reported the story, and when the church rallied behind Blackwell, Stokes said he felt like an outcast.
Soon after, Keeler removed Blackwell from the parish, St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, for 90 days and sent him to Connecticut for a psychological and spiritual evaluation.
Apology for error
When Blackwell returned, Keeler reinstated him. Keeler has said he is sorry for that, and he repeated his apology at Stokes' trial last week.
Brown said last night that he believes he got some divine help in the case.
"God was in that courtroom," he said, adding that he has bonded with Stokes and learned a lot from him over the course of the case. "This is just the beginning of what Dontee has to offer."
Jurors gave an added indication of their sympathy for Stokes with a note they sent to Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas: "If we find the defendant guilty of any count, can we recommend leniency?"
Prevas said he would look into the issue and instructed jurors not to speak to the news media.
He told them to return to court this morning to begin the second phase of the trial, in which jurors would determine whether Stokes was criminally responsible for the handgun charges he was convicted of yesterday.
Brown said he will ask the court to bypass that phase and proceed to the sentencing part of the trial. He plans to ask for probation.
"We trust the state will agree to probation," Brown said.
The prosecutor, Cox, said he would decide by this morning whether he will agree to bypass the criminal responsibility phase of the trial.
Blackwell, who was never charged with molesting Stokes, was called as a witness last week. He hobbled into court to plead the Fifth Amendment; he is under investigation because of Stokes' claims.
With cheering supporters all around him, Stokes said last night that he could not push aside his years-long frustration as an alleged sexual abuse victim.
"They still have not charged Maurice Blackwell," Stokes said. "Why aren't they charging Maurice Blackwell?"
When asked whether he had a message for the priest, Stokes replied:
"I have no message for Maurice Blackwell. I pray for Maurice Blackwell."
Sun staff writers Laurie Willis, Johnathon E. Briggs and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.
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