John Joseph Merzbacher, a notorious Baltimore child abuser accused of molesting dozens of students at the Catholic school where he taught, could soon be released from a life sentence, under a federal court order handed down Friday.
Merzbacher, now 68, is a former middle school teacher at the city's Catholic Community School. He was sentenced in 1995 to multiple life terms after a jury found him guilty of raping a preteen Elizabeth Ann Murphy decades earlier. He has already served 15 years.
But his case is now being sent back to state court so he can be offered a 10-year plea deal that was apparently on the table before his trial began, which he claims he was never properly advised of, as law requires.
"Merzbacher stands convicted of child rape, a crime both hideous and heinous," U.S. Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis wrote in a 72-page opinion filed Friday. "But like all persons charged with crime in our society, he was entitled to the protections of the Sixth Amendment [which provides certain rights to the criminally accused], of which the court has found he was constitutionally deprived."
Davis found that a state court judge who previously considered the issue of whether Merzbacher had been told about the deal "engaged in a patently defective fact-finding process" and incorrectly determined that Merzbacher was not entitled to legal relief.
Now, the state must offer Merzbacher the deal within 60 days, though it's contingent upon two things: finding a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge who's willing to honor the pact struck years ago, and Merzbacher agreeing to take the term.
Calls to his attorney, as well as to the assistant attorney general who fought the ruling, were not immediately returned Friday evening.
Murphy, now 49, was heartbroken and enraged by the decision.
"My question is what judge is going to clean up the body of the child John Merzbacher rapes and murders if he gets out of prison," Murphy said Friday. "This is a violent, serial child rapist, and if he gets out, we will see him do it again."
Merzbacher repeatedly raped Murphy when she was a child in middle school, holding a gun to her head and assaulting her with a pipe.
She came forward "at great emotional cost," she said, to testify and cooperate with the state, and she can't bear the idea that he could now be freed.
"I can't have my childhood restored, that's over for me," she said. "I can help protect children today, and that's what this is about. I'm angry at the potential that he could do this to another child."
An assistant attorney general called her Friday to warn her about the ruling, she said, and to assure her that the state planned to "vigorously defend" its position by filing an appeal and requesting a stay on any action that might result in Merzbacher's release.
Merzbacher's case was one of the most high-profile of its kind when he was indicted in 1994 and the allegations became public for the first time, though the abuse went back decades. Murphy met him in 1972, when she was 11. And a teacher had warned authorities about Merzbacher in the 1970s, it was later discovered.
By the time he went to trial, Merzbacher had 100 charges of sexual abuse pending against him. He was ultimately convicted of six counts of rape and sexual abuse involving Murphy, leading the state not to pursue 13 other cases.
Those other former students were told their cases could be brought back if Merzbacher were ever set free, however. That's something Mary Lewandowski-Stylc thought could never happen. Hers was one of the cases that prosecutors chose not to litigate.
"I'm a mess," she said Friday after learning of the decision from Murphy. "I didn't think this would ever happen; I thought he would die in prison."
She was in eighth grade when Merzbacher raped her, she said. She never knew the extent of the other abuse allegations until years later.
"When this all came out [many] years ago, and more and more people came forward, I starting hearing stories, I was dumbstruck," she said. "Some of them were worse than mine where there was actually torture. Others were more psychological. This man was just so devious, he just ruined so many lives."
At age 46, she still can't think of him today without fear.
"You never forget something like that," Lewandowski-Stylc said. "There has been a peace knowing that he's away from us, but every time his name comes up or there's an appeal or a court hearing, it's frightening."
Murphy kept Lewandowski-Stylc and others apprised of each development, because it was her case that put him away, and it was her case that was constantly being reviewed. Merzbacher was found guilty and sentenced to four concurrent life terms, but he fought the conviction for years afterward, winning various hearings and proceedings, but never his freedom.
In 2007, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Baltimore's U.S. District Court, and the case was assigned to Davis, who has since left that bench to join the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien filed a letter in the federal case "in support of the courageous survivors of John Merzbacher." He said he had talked with several victims and their families, who shared their "deeply painful and personal stories," and he asked that the judge allow the life sentences to stand.
"The abuse and threats have had an enormous impact on these innocent people, first as children, then as adults, as well as their families, and I fear that granting Merzbacher's request to be released from custody will cause further harm to these who have already suffered greatly," he wrote. "To nullify the jury's guilty verdict and prior judge's sentence would be a great injustice to those who risked much and received some measure of justice from Merzbacher's original criminal trial."
But Davis' opinion said he could not reach any other conclusion.
"The court is constrained to conclude that the correctness of the state post-conviction court's findings of fact have been shown to be grossly incorrect and that that court reached a determination that was manifestly unreasonable," he wrote.