Blackwell case viable but difficult, experts say

Sun Staff

When the strange tale of a Baltimore priest and the man he is accused of raping goes to court this year, it will be boiled down to its essence - the word of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell vs. former parishioner Dontee D. Stokes.

By all accounts, experts say, it is a viable case, though a difficult one to prove in court.

There were no eyewitnesses to the alleged abuse, said to have occurred more than a decade ago in the rectory of St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, and there is no evidence from the scene.

In addition, Stokes - who on May 13 last year shot his former priest three times on a West Baltimore street - has significantly changed his account over the past decade of what happened during the alleged abuse.

But legal scholars say prosecutors have a seemingly solid case against the priest, who was indicted last week on four counts of child sex abuse that allegedly occurred numerous times from 1989 to 1992, when Stokes was between 13 and 16 years old.

"Prosecutors get convictions in cases based on a single victim's testimony every day of the week," said Andrew D. Levy, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "It is certainly a legally sufficient case. If the jury chooses to believe Stokes, it would be legally adequate."

Through legal maneuvering last week, Blackwell avoided being arrested and booked at the city jail. Instead, he received a summons to appear at his arraignment May 29 in Circuit Court.

His lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, has repeatedly said his client is innocent of the charges.

At Blackwell's trial, prosecutors are likely to call as witnesses teachers, friends and relatives who knew Stokes at the time of the alleged abuse to testify about changes in his behavior.

Stokes, too, is expected to testify about the alleged rape, as he did in his trial in December on the shooting charges. He was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted of minor handgun counts and is serving eight months of home detention.

Prosecutors also could introduce into evidence report cards or other measures of his behavior or academic performance at the time.

The Baltimore Archdiocese, which is trying to get Blackwell defrocked, said it would cooperate with prosecutors, and has turned over related information.

"We report everything right away as soon as we know it," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "We give them every piece of information that is related to the incident so they can do their jobs."

The archdiocese has always believed the allegations against Blackwell were "credible," O'Doherty said.

Levy, who is a lawyer in private practice and teaches graduate classes on trial evidence, said Stokes' allegations are not very different from other sex abuses cases.

"It's the classic crime that takes place in private," Levy said. "By its very nature, it takes place without eyewitnesses."

But he said the variations in Stokes' account of what happened during the alleged abuse could cause problems for the prosecution. "The prior inconsistent statements are things the defense will make a lot of," Levy said.

Stokes told authorities in 1993 that he was abused by Blackwell but he did not say he was raped. Prosecutors said that at the time they did not have enough evidence to proceed with the case. However, a detective testified at Stokes' trial that he believed the 1993 allegations and wanted prosecutors to charge Blackwell.

Last week, Stokes told a grand jury that Blackwell raped him, according to Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown.

Brown, who successfully defended Stokes at his attempted murder trial in December, said he believes that prosecutors can handily convict Blackwell.

"Blackwell is an admitted pedophile," Brown said. "He has a history of this type of thing. We are not accusing him of something far-fetched."

After Stokes' allegations in 1993, Cardinal William H. Keeler removed Blackwell from St. Edward for 90 days and sent him for a psychological evaluation.

When Blackwell returned, Keeler reinstated him, a move he later said he regretted. He also has publicly apologized to Stokes for not being able to prevent the alleged abuse.

In 1998, Blackwell was removed from the congregation and suspended from his priestly functions after he admitted to sexually abusing a teen-ager in the 1970s.

The Roman Catholic priest - who was a close friend of Stokes' family - could serve up to 60 years in prison if convicted of all four counts relating to Stokes.

As for the idea that Blackwell has paid the price for any abuse that might have occurred when he was shot by Stokes, and therefore should not face more punishment, Brown disagreed.

"Dontee has gotten his pound of flesh out of him," Brown said. "But he still owes the citizens of Baltimore."

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