Claiming "a circus-like atmosphere where it was impossible for the defendant to receive a fair trial," the attorney for a defrocked Baltimore priest convicted last week of molesting a former parishioner at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore filed a sweeping motion yesterday seeking a new trial.
Maurice Blackwell, 58, was found guilty last Thursday of three counts of sexual child abuse for fondling and having sexual contact with Dontee Stokes, a one-time parish choirboy who later shot him. Blackwell could receive up to 45 years in prison when he is sentenced April 15.
A motion for a new trial is a routine legal maneuver after a conviction, and city Circuit Court judges say defense lawyers rarely prevail.
But the request in Blackwell's case has special significance because Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger acknowledged during the trial that he had "failed" to maintain an atmosphere of fairness when two detectives mentioned other victims during their testimony, and later to television reporters.
If Berger denies the motion, Blackwell could appeal to a higher court.
Blackwell's trial attracted national attention because his victim shot him in May 2002, at the height of the priest abuse scandal in the American Catholic church.
Stokes, 29, was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted of weapons charges.
Last Thursday, after a weeklong trial, a jury convicted Blackwell of sexual child abuse for molesting Stokes as a teenager from 1989 to 1992 at St Edward's.
Reasons for request
Defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell pointed to several circumstances that warrant a new trial: television interviews of sequestered witnesses; an attempt by two detectives to influence the jury through improper references to "other possible victims;" testimony by one of the investigators that he found Stokes credible, and the conduct of Stokes' relatives, whom Ravenell said loudly called out "pervert" as Blackwell passed by in the hallway outside the courtroom.
"If the judge applies the law, which is very clear, the judge should grant a new trial," Ravenell said yesterday after filing in Baltimore Circuit Court the six-page motion and separate one-page request for a hearing on the motion.
Prosecutors declined comment on the appeal, saying they were reviewing the motion and awaiting Berger's ruling, according to Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office.
Ravenell, a Baltimore attorney who began practicing criminal defense in 1988, said he has never been a part of a case with so many grounds for a new trial. He said he also cannot recall a judge ever admitting to a failure during a trial.
"We believe Judge Berger was concerned that Maurice was not receiving a fair trial," Ravenell said.
Other legal experts also noted yesterday that the judge's comment - outside the presence of the jury - was unusual and could signal that he will grant the defense's request.
Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said he would normally be astonished if a judge granted a new trial motion.
But Dash said he sees it as slightly more possible in the Blackwell case, "given that the judge himself had serious misgivings on how it was handled."
Chances for new trial
Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore criminal law professor who taught Berger and remains friendly with him, said the fact that the judge has "already indicated his displeasure" with the detectives' comments about other victims indicates that Ravenell's motion probably has a higher chance of being granted.
The law professor said Ravenell's motion points to two "very legitimate" appeals issues, a detective vouching for Stokes' credibility, which he said is for the jury alone to assess, and the repeated mention of other possible victims.
"One could argue that it's asking too much of a jury to have them pretend they did not hear that," Warnken said.
In the motion, Ravenell points to the testimony of Lt. Frederick V. Roussey as being a particular problem.
Roussey, now the police union president, was a detective in the child abuse unit when he interviewed Stokes as a 17-year-old in 1993, when his allegations against Blackwell first surfaced.
Roussey testified that he found Stokes to be "credible," which Ravenell noted in the motion is a question for the jury, not for individual witnesses. Roussey also testified that he'd interviewed "other possible victims" of Blackwell during the investigation.
Charges of 'an agenda'
Detective Shawn Harrison and Stokes also mentioned the possibility of other victims in their testimony.
"Detective Roussey and Detective Harrison ... testified with an agenda - to ensure that the jury heard what they wanted to say - that the defendant had a propensity to commit this type of crime," the motion states.
On the day the two detectives testified, Ravenell asked three times for a mistrial.
Berger denied those requests but instructed the jury to disregard the detectives' statements about other possible victims.
A day later, Berger held a hearing during which he threatened to hold Roussey and Harrison in contempt of court for their conduct on the stand and in front of television cameras.
"I am concerned, deeply, that there has been testimony from three witnesses about other victims," Berger said during the hearing. "I have tried to address that appropriately. I have failed."
Berger said he would make a ruling on the contempt issue after Blackwell is sentenced.
In interviews the evening after the verdict, two of the 12 jurors said they did not consider the detectives' comments about other victims during their deliberations.
Most jurors declined to comment.
"It wasn't about the others," juror Anthony C. Long said at the time. Juror Valerie S. Cunningham said she had "no knowledge" of any juror who was swayed by what the detectives said about other victims.
The law professors said the other issues raised by Ravenell in the motion for a new trial, such as Stokes' family's conduct and the television interviews of witnesses, aren't as egregious but still may have contributed to an overall atmosphere of unfairness.
"If you have a long list of the kinds of problems this trial had," Dash said, "each one adds a little weight to the scale."
Judge Berger's comments
Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger's statements during a contempt hearing Feb 15. Some of his comments from the bench - out of the presence of the jury - were cited in Maurice Blackwell's appeal filed yesterday.
Berger addressed Detective Shawn Harrison during a hearing to determine whether she and Lt. Frederick V. Roussey should be held in contempt of court for testifying that there were other victims of Blackwell. Harrison repeated her comments, after the judge's admonition, to a television reporter.
"The court has to decide this case based on the law, and I am charged with the responsibility of administering that law," Berger said, waving a law book. "There are rules of evidence. There are cases that are needed to be interpreted.
"I am concerned, deeply, that there has been testimony from three witnesses about other victims. I have tried to address that appropriately. I have failed.
"I thought I made it very clear to you that you are not to address that. And notwithstanding that clarity, you did on the news media. That concerns me deeply.
"This court is charged with the responsibility of administering a fair trial."
Source: Transcription of the court proceeding videotape