Merzbacher convicted of decades-ago rape

The word "Guilty" was almost inaudible as forewoman Iris Darby delivered the jury's verdicts in the sexual-abuse trial of John Joseph Merzbacher yesterday. But it was so very loud to Elizabeth Ann Murphy.

It was the sound of somebody finally listening, finally admitting what others had tried to deny. It was the sound of faith being restored.


Ms. Murphy, whose allegations of rape were the subject of the trial, burst into tears in the arms of a sister as five more "guiltys" came forth. The 34-year-old woman rejoiced with other students who have said they, too, were Merzbacher's victims, in the most bizarre of class reunions.

The jury of eight men and four women took about 10 hours to convict Merzbacher of three counts of statutory rape, one count of common-law rape, one count of perverted sexual practices and one of sexual child abuse against Ms. Murphy, who was his student at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore from 1972 to 1975.


Merzbacher, 53, could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison on the rape conviction alone when he is sentenced July 21.

Dozens of Merzbacher's students at the Catholic school and at Baltimore city public schools, where Merzbacher also taught, have told police they were abused by the teacher. Thirteen other men and women have been identified as victims in criminal indictments against Merzbacher. But the jury heard only evidence involving Ms. Murphy.

"I am very firm in my belief that he did these things to this woman, to this child, 23 years ago," said juror Gloria Pearson, who works in security.

"He was guilty, guilty, guilty," said juror Diane Wilkerson, a medical office assistant. "I went by what she said. You had to think of an 11-year-old child and what happened to her.

"Nobody came and said he was a pillar of society."

Jurors said their deliberations were lengthy because they were not sure how much weight to give to missing witnesses and evidence. For example, Ms. Murphy testified that Merzbacher invited other boys to have sex with her -- but none of them was called to testify.

They found the absence of character witnesses for Merzbacher more troublesome.

"It required some considerable conversation to assemble" the case, said juror Allen Grossman, a Johns Hopkins University English professor. But in the end, he said, "there's no statute of limitations on mental injury . . . and traumatic experience."


Ms. Murphy described that experience on the witness stand. She admitted to abusing alcohol and drugs. She said Merzbacher gave her her first drink at age 11 -- right before he raped her.

Now, she said, she is not afraid for people to know her name. She plans to pursue a civil suit she has filed against Merzbacher and the Baltimore Archdiocese. Judge Hilary D. Caplan is to rule later this month whether that action is barred by the statute of limitations.

"It was very difficult being attacked, watching my family be attacked," Ms. Murphy said yesterday. "It's taken me 20 years to say I am not afraid."

"Today, the halls of justice are ringing at the Baltimore City

courthouse," she said. "But nothing can restore my childhood."

Others were pleased with the verdict.


"Finally, our son can rest in peace," said Nancy Blair, whose son was a student of Merzbacher's who said the teacher raped him and died after charges were brought.

What went through Merzbacher's mind yesterday was not clear. He sat at the back of the courtroom awaiting the verdict, wearing a dark suit and tie. His wife of 27 years, Gloria, sat beside him in a beige sweater and dress. When the decision was announced, she stared straight ahead, showing no expression, and Merzbacher was motionless. Neither would speak to reporters.

"We're deeply disappointed," M. Cristina Gutierrez, Merzbacher's lawyer, said of the verdicts.

Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman doubled Merzbacher's bail to $500,000. The former teacher and union leader was led away in handcuffs to a holding cell, then to the Baltimore City Detention Center, where he is likely to spend the weekend. He had been free on conditions that kept him in his Essex home except to go to work, church, court, doctor's appointments or meetings with his attorney.

Prosecutors requested that Merzbacher's bail be revoked because the convictions gave him more incentive to flee. A bail review hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Ms. Gutierrez said the judge's rulings kept her from introducing more evidence on her client's behalf, and more testimony to impugn Ms. Murphy's credibility. She said she would file a motion for a new trial based on those and other issues.


"This was a battle," Ms. Gutierrez said. "We still have a war. This jury did not hear all about Elizabeth Murphy."

Indeed, prosecutors Sharon A. H. May and Roberta G. Siskind were in their offices preparing for that war -- what could be 13 more trials involving Merzbacher -- hours after the verdict. They are due back in court this morning to discuss whether to combine the cases of the next two alleged victims -- a now 32-year-old man who said Merzbacher abused him when he lived with the teacher as a teen-ager, and the man's girlfriend at the time.

Ms. Gutierrez said it was "unlikely" a plea agreement to the more than 100 charges remaining could be arranged.

The Merzbacher case is not the first time the Baltimore City state's attorney's office has brought charges years after alleged sexual abuse took place. But the only other analogous case in memory, which occurred several years ago, involved a woman )) who had been impregnated by her stepfather years before. Blood tests made proof easy, and the man pleaded guilty.

The allegations against Merzbacher, by contrast, had no physical evidence to back them up two decades later.

Loath to jeopardize the trials yet to come, Ms. May would not comment on yesterday's verdicts.


"It was [Ms. Murphy's] case," Ms. May said. "This is her moment."

Ms. Murphy basked in that moment in the company of many of her eight brothers and sisters. The children were raised to respect the nuns and priests and teachers Ms. Murphy said had failed her when she tried to report Merzbacher's abuse.

But the jury's words, she said, have cleaved her to religion all the more.

"I'm going to find a quiet chapel," she said, "and go thank God."