There is little dispute about the shooting. Dontee Stokes fired a .357-caliber Magnum three times from close range, hitting a priest he says raped him more than a decade ago.

But as Stokes' trial begins today in Baltimore Circuit Court, prosecutors may find that convicting him is not as easy as the facts suggest.

Stokes' brand of vigilante justice will be tested against jurors' sympathy for him. Stokes' lawyer will argue that his client's life was ruined by the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, the Roman Catholic priest who he says repeatedly molested him as a teen-ager.

"We need to get a sympathetic jury," said Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown. "We need to get them to agree with us, that because of Dontee's state of mind, he was not criminally responsible for his actions."

Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office said her office will not comment on witnesses, evidence or courtroom strategy. Assistant State's Attorney Sylvester Cox will prosecute the case.

Jury selection begins this morning. Once 12 jurors are selected, they will hear testimony about how Stokes confronted Blackwell, 56 - the priest who baptized him 26 years ago - in front of his Reservoir Hill rowhouse May 13. Stokes demanded an apology for the alleged sexual assaults.

When he didn't get one, a police report said, he snapped and fired three shots at Blackwell at close range, hitting him in the hip and hand.

Stokes, a career barber who is being held under house arrest, is charged with nine criminal counts, including attempted murder.

Brown, Stokes' lawyer, argues that the state and the church should take responsibility for what happened to Stokes. His client came forward in 1993 to make a report of Blackwell's alleged abuses, but prosecutors were unable to verify his account and no charges were ever filed.

At the time, Blackwell's congregation, St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, supported the priest. Blackwell was temporarily removed from the church but reinstated by Cardinal William H. Keeler.

Keeler is expected to testify at Stokes' trial this week. He and others are likely to face a barrage of questions from Brown, who said they are partly to blame.

"I'll put the state on trial, church on trial and Maurice Blackwell on trial," Brown said of his courtroom strategy. "If I do my job right, Dontee will be No. 4 on the list in that courtroom. Dontee doesn't deserve to go to trial."

He also said Blackwell "got what he deserved in the minds of a lot of folk."

Brown has called Blackwell as a witness, but said the priest is likely to say he will not testify because he is being investigated by authorities for allegedly molesting Stokes.

In support of Stokes, a group called The Linkup - Survivors of Clergy Abuse, held a news conference and candlelight vigil last night. It began at the Tremont Plaza Hotel, where speakers were surrounded by large photographs of a young Stokes in church, and ended in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, where they sang and recited the Lord's Prayer.

The Rev. Gary Hayes, a Roman Catholic priest from Cloverport, Ky., who was part of the news conference, said he was molested by two members of the clergy when he was a boy.

"I know firsthand what your life becomes when you've been abused by priests," Hayes said. "We live in pain, agony and frustration every day. I don't know how to describe my anger. It is light years beyond rage. But for the grace of God, I could have taken a gun and shot my perpetrator."

He said the church needs to "honor all the truth."

"The truth is that we have priests who molest children," Hayes said, adding that abusive priests have created many resentful victims.

Sue Archibald of Louisville, Ky., who also says she was a victim of clergy abuse as a child, is president of Linkup. She said she confronted her abuser three years ago and that he refused to acknowledge his wrongdoing.

"If I had a gun maybe I would have struck back with violence," she said. "Instead, I contemplated killing myself."

Sun staff writer Michael Ollove contributed to this article.