Jacqueline L. Bouknight, jailed for more than seven years for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of her young son, stands poised to be released next week, due reportedly to a change of heart by state officials who have argued until now that she should remain behind bars.
Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who represents the Baltimore City Department of Social Services in the case, announced his intention to seek Ms. Bouknight's release during a meeting with attorneys in the case yesterday, according to several of the attorneys present.
A hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday before Judge David B. Mitchell, the judge who jailed Ms. Bouknight on April 28, 1988, when she refused to say where her 18-month-old son, Maurice, had gone.
She has been at the Baltimore City Detention Center ever since.
Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney for the missing boy, said he also will ask the judge to release Ms. Bouknight, meaning all parties would be in agreement.
"She has told us a lot of detail of what her story is," Mr. Mirviss said.
"We don't believe we're going to get any more information from her. She could be in jail for seven more years and her story wouldn't change."
M. Cristina Gutierrez, Ms. Bouknight's lawyer, said that based on the meeting, she believed Mr. Tyler would argue that Ms. Bouknight had become "institutionalized" and comfortable with her incarceration, and that therefore continuing to jail her was having no effect.
But Ms. Gutierrez said that after such a long, tangled court fight, she was afraid to tell Ms. Bouknight the end was near.
"I went to tell her with enormous trepidation, with fear of getting her hopes up," Ms. Gutierrez said.
"I felt it was her right to know. She can't believe it. She's afraid to believe it."
Mr. Mirviss praised Mr. Tyler and the Baltimore City Department of Social Services for their changed stance, saying it was probably "institutionally difficult."
"I feel they are doing the right thing and should be commended," he said.
Mr. Tyler yesterday refused to comment on the coming hearing.
"This matter is in the jurisdiction of the juvenile court," he said. "Anything we have to say we will say to the court."
Ms. Bouknight's incarceration for civil contempt has been one of the longest in the country.
Her lawyers say she has been victimized for trying to hide her son from the foster-care system she was raised in.
Others believe she killed her son long ago, though investigators have never been able to prove it.
Appellate court ruling is key
The reported turnabout comes about a week after the Court of Special Appeals dismissed an appeal on Ms. Bouknight's behalf on procedural grounds.
But the court in its order noted that Ms. Bouknight's attorneys were not precluded from filing a habeas corpus petition to demand her release.
Ms. Gutierrez said last night that her client is eager to be released so she can find her child.
But she said that based on yesterday's meeting, she expected DSS to ask for conditions on Ms. Bouknight's release, including that she be barred from having physical contact with Maurice.
She said she would have to talk to her client before deciding whether to oppose conditions.
"We are certainly, given the Kafkaesque history of this case, wary of objecting to anything if that would keep her from being released," Ms. Gutierrez said.
The civil contempt power allows judges to indefinitely jail people who defy court orders to produce information.
As long as the contempt order appears "coercive" -- that is, that confining the person has a hope of wearing him or her down -- the person can stay imprisoned without being charged with anything.
But once it is determined that jail accomplishes nothing more than punishment, the court must either release the person or find him in criminal contempt of court, which requires a finding of guilt and a definite sentence like any other conviction.
Ms. Bouknight's attorneys have argued since 1993 that Ms. Bouknight was in that position, and that continuing to hold her was unconstitutional.
Case began with abuse
The historic saga began when the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, which Mr. Tyler represents, took Maurice away from Ms. Bouknight after she was found to have abused him.
Ms. Bouknight won the boy back from a juvenile court master after taking classes in parent skills and agreeing to produce him for DSS at any time.
But social workers lost track of mother and child, and when they caught up with Ms. Bouknight again months later in East Baltimore, Maurice was gone.
Brought before the court, Ms. Bouknight first said the baby was with relatives.
When that didn't pan out, she fell silent.
Her attorneys appealed Judge Mitchell's order all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the contempt order violated Ms. Bouknight's right against compelled self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled against Ms. Bouknight.
For several years after that ruling, hearings and records in the case were closed under a state law that keeps juvenile court proceedings confidential.
Unusual public proceeding
In an extraordinary hearing last January that was opened to the public, Ms. Bouknight took the witness stand and said she was continuing to stay silent to keep her son from going to a Maryland foster home.
She said she did not believe the lawyers and the court would keep an agreement to allow Maurice to stay wherever he was, provided that home was a safe one.
At that hearing, Ms. Bouknight said her son was with a friend named "Rachael Anderson," and that she did not know where Ms. Anderson was anymore.
Ms. Bouknight finally agreed to a series of private meetings with Maurice's lawyers and a Baltimore City police detective.
Some meetings have taken place in the ensuing months, and investigators have attempted to check out the information.
They were concentrating their efforts on a town in North Carolina, based on information Ms. Bouknight gave them.
But Maurice -- who would have turned 9 this month -- has not been found.
At the time of the January hearing, Mr. Mirviss said he hoped his client was still alive and could be located.
Asked yesterday if the boy was alive, Mr. Mirviss said simply, "I don't know."