Defrocked West Baltimore priest Maurice Blackwell will not face a new trial on charges that he sexually assaulted a onetime choirboy who later shot him, the state's attorney's office said yesterday, bringing to a definitive end a contentious case that dates to 1993.
"I reached a decision that I believe is in the interest of justice," State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in a statement that outlined her reasons for not moving forward with another trial.
Prosecutors had been mum on their plans for the case since April, when a Baltimore Circuit Court judge overturned Blackwell's conviction by granting his request for a new trial, based on what the judge ruled was improper testimony about the former priest's other possible victims.
In February, a city jury convicted Blackwell, 59, of three counts of sexual child abuse for allegedly molesting Dontee Stokes over a period of three years when he was a teenager at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church.
Stokes, now 29, learned of Jessamy's decision in a brief meeting yesterday morning at Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. He hurried outside afterward, saying he was disappointed and upset.
Reached yesterday evening, Blackwell's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, said: "For all parties, this is the right decision. Sometimes, you just have to put matters to rest."
Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, a former child-abuse detective who investigated Blackwell in 1993, said he believes the state's attorney's office has been looking for a way to avoid prosecuting Blackwell, once a leader in the African-American community, ever since Stokes came forward with his story in 1993.
At the time, the state's attorney's office said prosecutors could not find any corroborating evidence of then-17-year-old Stokes' claims of fondling and declined to seek an indictment.
"They always wanted this all to go away," said Roussey, now president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "And now it will. And Dontee has been victimized again."
Stokes said yesterday as he left the courthouse that a prosecutor told him that going through another trial would not be good for his "mental wellbeing." He called that "nonsense."
A spokeswoman for the state's attorney said Jessamy made her decision after reviewing the sex abuse statute and the trial transcript and meeting with prosecutors and detectives.
One factor, said spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns, was that prosecutors don't believe Blackwell would have been sentenced to much, if any, prison time if he were convicted again.
Blackwell faced a maximum possible sentence of 45 years if convicted of all three sex abuse counts. But Burns said sentencing guidelines, which are based on a person's criminal record and other circumstances, called for probation.
Judges are free to follow the guidelines or exceed them, up to the maximum legal punishment.
"The State's Attorney must fairly and reasonably consider each criminal case based on the law, the facts and the evidence," Jessamy said in a statement.
Blackwell's fate has been in Jessamy's hands since April 8, when Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger granted a defense motion for a new trial.
Berger ruled that it had been wrong for the jury to hear testimony by Stokes and two detectives in the case - including Roussey - that referred to "other possible victims" of Blackwell.
"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," Berger wrote in his ruling.
Other allegations of improper behavior by Blackwell had circulated for years. He was stripped of his church authority in 1998 after admitting to having a sexual relationship with another teenage boy, Robert A. Martin, in the early 1970s. The Archdiocese Of Baltimore announced in December that Pope John Paul II had defrocked him in an irrevocable decree for that reason.
Martin, now 50, of Louisiana, had come to Baltimore prepared to testify, but Berger ruled that his testimony would be too prejudicial. The judge barred anyone from mentioning the possibility of other victims.
The public saga of Blackwell and Stokes began on May 13, 2002, at the height of the Catholic Church's national priest abuse scandal. Stokes shot Blackwell outside the former priest's Reservoir Hill home when he refused to apologize for the alleged abuse. A city jury acquitted Stokes of attempted murder and assault charges, and convicted him only of handgun violations. He served 18 months of home detention.
Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown, focused on his client's claims of abuse during that trial - saying that his client was raped by Blackwell. That new allegation, prosecutors said, allowed them to reopen the Blackwell investigation.
During Blackwell's two-week trial earlier this year, the defense attorney focused on Stokes' mental stability. Under cross-examination, Stokes admitted to a history of delusions and questions about his own sexuality, predating his interaction with Blackwell.
But on Feb. 17, the jury found Blackwell "guilty" to three charges of sexual child abuse. At the time, Stokes said: "People know now. He's been found guilty in a court of law."
Yesterday, Roussey said that even though the Blackwell prosecution has ended, it will live on as "the case that haunts me."
"I can sleep at night," he said. "I know I didn't fail Dontee. The court system failed him."