Baltimore barber Dontee Stokes, who was acquitted in 2002 of shooting a priest he said had molested him, was given another reprieve yesterday: The state's highest court threw out a handgun charge for which he was convicted in connection with wounding the clergyman.
The decision yesterday could bring an end to a contentious criminal case that outraged many city residents and drew national attention during the recent sex scandal involving the Roman Catholic church.
But prosecutors say they might retry Stokes, who admitted shooting his former priest three times on a West Baltimore street.
In overturning Stokes' handgun conviction, Maryland's Court of Appeals ruled that the Circuit Court judge in the case, John N. Prevas, erred by allowing four alternate jurors to deliberate with the rest of the jury panel.
"The trial court went down the wrong path," reads the 27-page decision. "Once the additional jurors entered the jury room with the jurors to consider the verdict, and the deliberations commenced, the error could not be cured."
Stokes was acquitted of attempted murder and other serious charges in the shooting of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell but was convicted of illegally carrying a handgun. Stokes served 18 months of home detention for the handgun violation.
Blackwell was shot May 13, 2002, when Stokes drove to the priest's Reservoir Hill home and fired at him after briefly confronting the priest about abuse that he said had occurred a decade earlier.
The clergyman, who lost part of his hand and suffered hip injuries, has denied the abuse allegations. He was charged last year with sex abuse and is scheduled for trial March 22.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said her office is reviewing whether to retry Stokes on the gun charge or let the case go because Stokes has served his time.
Warren A. Brown, who defended Stokes during his trial, said yesterday that he hopes the state "sees the wisdom of letting a sleeping dog lay" and does not retry his client.
He also said he was gratified by the court's opinion. "Justice has truly been served," the lawyer said. "It is as if the gods of fate are smiling upon him."
The court's decision is likely to set a state precedent in cases that involve the insanity defense. But legal experts say it is unlikely that there will be many other cases that hinge on the deliberations of alternate jurors.
Abraham A. Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said of Prevas' decision to include the alternate jurors, "It is very unusual. Most trial judges just don't do that."
Prevas said at the time of the trial that he did not dismiss the alternate jurors because the case had a wrinkle: Stokes' lawyer filed a motion asking that Stokes be found not criminally responsible for the crime.
That meant that the case was broken into two parts. In the first phase, the jury had to decide whether to convict Stokes. In the second, it had to determine whether he was criminally responsible.
Prevas allowed the alternates to deliberate with the jury for a few hours, then told the alternates that they should remain in the room but not offer input.
Alternate jurors essentially serve as backups in case one of the 12 members of the jury panel becomes ill or cannot continue for some other reason.
Prevas said at the time that he did not want to dismiss any jurors during the first phase in case he needed them for the second. He noted that Maryland law offers little guidance about what to do with alternates during a trial's first phase.
Maryland's court procedures dictate that "alternates shall be retained throughout the trial" but do not specify how.
The appeals court ruled yesterday that in cases involving the insanity defense, alternate jurors should be treated the same as they would be in death penalty cases. The extra jurors should be kept separate from regular jurors during deliberations in the first phase, then rejoin them if there is a second phase of the trial.
The Stokes trial never reached the second phase. After he was acquitted of the most serious charges, Brown withdrew the insanity defense request.