Dontee Stokes and attorney Warren Brown

Dontee Stokes (left) leaves the courthouse with attorney Warren Brown after the jury verdict. Stokes was charged with attempted murder in the shooting of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / December 16, 2002)

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.

Keeler statement