BALTIMORE — A judge yesterday granted a new trial to defrocked priest Maurice Blackwell on charges of child sexual abuse, agreeing with defense arguments that jurors should not have heard prosecution witnesses testify about other purported victims.
‘The court finds the interests of justice compel the granting of a new trial,’ Circuit Judge Stuart Berger wrote in his order.
The jury convicted Mr. Blackwell, 58, in February of three counts of abusing Dontee Stokes. Mr. Stokes, a former parishioner, shot the ex-cleric in 2002, nearly a decade after the abuse.
Judge Berger said in his order that ‘the bell has been rung’ by repeated references to other victims during Mr. Blackwell’s trial.
‘This court finds it difficult, if not impossible, to un-ring that bell,’ Judge Berger said.
Mr. Blackwell’s attorney, Kenneth Ravenell, declined to immediately comment, saying he wanted to read the judge’s order.
In a hearing earlier yesterday, Mr. Ravenell argued that references by two Baltimore Police Department investigators to other victims made it impossible for his client to get a fair trial.
Lt. Frederick Roussey testified on Feb. 14, the second day of the trial, that he believed Mr. Blackwell molested Mr. Stokes 20 or 30 times and said others were victimized. Lt. Roussey also told the jury that he believed Mr. Stokes was credible, a determination Mr. Ravenell said only the jury could make.
These comments and testimony from police Detective Shawn Harrison that also mentioned other victims prompted Mr. Ravenell to ask three times that day for a mistrial.
Yesterday, Mr. Ravenell told Judge Berger that while the judge instructed the jury to ignore the comments, the damage was done. He also argued that the cumulative effect of the references may have made it hard for the jury to set them aside.
Prosecutor Jo Anne Stanton said she instructed the witnesses not to mention other victims and admonished them for their comments. But she argued that the comments did not influence jurors, noting that the jury did not convict Mr. Blackwell of a fourth charge of child sexual abuse.
Mr. Ravenell countered that since the charges were broken down by year, 1989 through 1992, the jury could have believed that the abuse occurred, but not in the time period related to the earliest charge.
During the morning hearing, Judge Berger pointed out he had instructed the jury to ignore references to other victims, but agreed that ?once the bell has rung, you don’t know what kind of effect it might have.?
Mr. Blackwell was stripped of his church authority in 1998 after acknowledging he had a sexual relationship with a teenage boy in the early 1970s. The Vatican defrocked him in October.
Mr. Stokes, 29, was acquitted of attempted murder in December 2002 after saying he had an ?out-of-body experience? when he shot Mr. Blackwell. He was convicted on gun charges.
The new trial for Mr. Blackwell was not immediately scheduled.