John Merzbacher in 1995

John Merzbacher in 1995, outside the Baltimore Circuit Court before the closing arguments of his case. (Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore Sun / June 6, 1995)

The Maryland attorney general's office argued in a lengthy legal brief, filed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that a convicted child rapist serving four life terms should not be offered a second chance to take a plea deal years after the fact, despite a U.S. district court ruling demanding just that.

"The district court erred," Assistant Attorney General Edward Kelley wrote in the 56-page document.

He was referring to a finding that the constitutional rights of John Joseph Merzbacher, an English teacher at the South Baltimore Catholic Community middle school in the 1970s, were violated because his attorneys failed to inform him of a plea deal before his 1995 trial on child rape and sexual abuse charges. Merzbacher was subsequently convicted and sentenced to serve concurrent life terms, and he failed to overturn the conviction through appeals to state courts.

But in July 2010, after Merzbacher had served 15 years in prison, a federal judge found in his favor. The judge explicitly contradicted Maryland courts that said it "strains credulity" to believe an attorney forgot to mention the plea offer, which carried a 10-year prison term, or that Merzbacher, who has long maintained his innocence, would have accepted it.

The U.S. district court judge ordered a Baltimore court to extend the offer, but the ruling was put on hold pending the attorney general's appeal, which is now moving forward after a long delay to await decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court in similar cases.

Merzbacher's appellate attorney, H. Mark Stichel, said Monday that he could not comment because he had not had a chance to thoroughly review the filing, which was submitted Friday but publicly inaccessible for much of the weekend because of problems with the Internet.

A spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office did not respond to an inquiry.

The attorney general's office argued in the filing that the federal judge overstepped his bounds in challenging the fact-finding of the state courts and contended that the plea offer was never formalized, and therefore shouldn't be reopened. The number of criminal cases included in the deal — more than a dozen were filed against Merzbacher — and the exact charges to be pleaded were not expressly identified, Kelley said in the brief.

A brief is due from Merzbacher's side early next month.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/triciabishop

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