As Dontee Stokes strode slowly down the courthouse steps yesterday, a smile spread across his face, just as his longtime attorney flashed a thumbs-up sign.
"Thank God, thank God, thank God," Stokes murmured, as much to himself as to the media swarming him. "This is over."
Maurice Blackwell had just been found guilty of molesting Stokes years ago, back when Blackwell was a priest at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore and Stokes led the youth group there.
Though this wasn't Stokes' trial - the Baltimore barber was acquitted in 2002 of the attempted murder of Blackwell - in many ways it might as well have been.
During the weeklong trial, Stokes' sanity, his sexuality and his very credibility were kicked around and questioned. And in the years leading up to it, his life was on pause, his future hanging on the outcome of this case.
"I definitely was on trial here," Stokes said. "It was all about me and whether I was credible. It's done. The world can see now that I'm not a crazy person."
And it was gratifying, he said, to have a jury believe what Blackwell would not admit.
"I feel like he can no longer deny he has done these things to me," Stokes said. "People know now. He's been found guilty in a court of law."
Shooting in 2002
In May of 2002, Stokes drove past Blackwell's home, rolled down the window to speak to the priest who was outside, then shot him three times when Blackwell appeared not to recognize him.
Stokes, acquitted of the most serious charges, ended up serving 18 months of home detention for handgun violations.
It was only after Stokes' trial that Blackwell was indicted.
Yesterday, Stokes said he had mixed feelings about Blackwell going to court to answer for the abuse.
On the one hand, Stokes said he needed to hear that "guilty," not only for his own validation but for that of other abuse victims. Yet part of him feels sorry for the defrocked priest, a former father figure whom Stokes now calls sick and sad.
"I'm no fool. I shot the man. I could have walked away with that, I was fine with that to a degree," Stokes said. "But things were done to so many others who could not fight for themselves. It's not where I wanted to go, but where I had to go."
Though it was his priest who hurt him - and though his mother expressed disappointment yesterday that the Catholic Church didn't stand by her son - Stokes said his faith steadied him during these difficult years and strengthened him to weather the trial.
"I don't blame the church and I don't blame God for the things I've been through," Stokes said. "I leaned on God through all of this."
Stokes seemed eager to let religion define his life and insistent on infusing it into his thoughts and theories about the verdict.
By doing so, he appeared circumspect, wary of admitting just how much he had at stake here, mindful of coming off too joyous about the outcome.
The slight smile he flashed on the courthouse steps was as close to a victory dance as he was willing to get.
His mother and his lawyer, however, were more open about the way this outcome could help Stokes, 29, heal and move on.
"Today I let Dontee go," his mother, Tamara Stokes Morrison, said. "He has work to do. He is free now. His heart is free of all that burdens him."
In lieu of apology
Warren A. Brown, Stokes' attorney in the attempted-murder case, said the verdict will stand in lieu of an apology from Blackwell, something Stokes wanted all along.
"It was difficult for the victims in their healing process when he wouldn't even admit he had done these things," Brown said outside the courthouse as Stokes draped an arm across his shoulder. "This will help these individuals tremendously.
"This is something that goes on forever for individuals like Dontee," Brown said. "[Blackwell] took little boys and ... ruined their lives for sexual pleasure. He's got to pay for that."
With that, Stokes' family and supporters, gathered behind him and Brown, shouted in exuberant approval.
To reach this prized moment, Stokes endured many more painful ones during the trial as the defense questioned his sanity, whether he knew fantasy from reality.
Though Stokes spoke of spirits and aliens and delusions and out-of-body experiences during his testimony, he insisted when it came to Blackwell's abuse, he was certain.
With the trial behind him, Stokes isn't sure what's next. "I'm just looking forward to moving forward," he offered.
He has talked about opening his own barbershop and about writing an autobiography but he speaks most enthusiastically about helping others who've been abused by clergy.
He wants to persuade these other victims to hold onto their faith, as he has so tightly.
"I choose to lead by example," Stokes said. "I didn't want this man to take what was the greatest joy from me."
With or without the apology from Blackwell that he used to want so badly, Stokes said he plans to keep healing, try helping others to heal and, above all, keep praying.
"I'm fine," he said. "I feel blessed."
Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.