Blackwell's refusal to testify in shooting costs him $15,000

Crime, Law and JusticeJuvenile DelinquencyTrials and ArbitrationCrimeChristianityRoman CatholicismJustice System

When the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell recently hobbled into Dontee Stokes' attempted-murder trial in a Baltimore courtroom and refused to testify against the man who shot him, it cost the priest more than public censure.

It cost him nearly $15,000.

Blackwell - who is accused of having molested Stokes when stokes was a teen - was denied a $14,820 claim he filed with the state's Criminal Injuries Compensation Board seeking reimbursement for medical and other expenses related to the shooting.

In its denial notice to Blackwell, dated Jan. 7, board members noted that the clergyman did not cooperate with law enforcement officers during Stokes' trial, as is required to collect on a claim. Instead, Blackwell invoked his Fifth Amendment right four days before Stokes was acquitted by a jury of attempted murder.

"The claimant refused to cooperate in the prosecution of the offender and declined to testify against the offender," the board ruled.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Blackwell's lawyer, said he is appealing the decision because he thinks the board did not decide Blackwell's claim on its merits.

"I believe they were swayed by public opinion," Ravenell said. "It is assumed Father Blackwell is guilty of a crime he's never even been charged with."

The priest's claim is one of 1,700 a year received by the compensation board, a state panel of appointees that is often the last resort for crime victims with mounting bills and nowhere else to turn. Decisions by the board, which has the task of deciding which of Maryland's crime victims are worthy of compensation, are rarely publicized.

Blackwell's compensation case is one of the few to come to public attention, largely because of the nature of the December criminal trial and the sex scandal unfolding in the Roman Catholic church. The decision involving Blackwell is representative of the choices that the compensation board must wrestle with in trying to decide who will get a slice of its $5.75 million victim fund.

The 35-year-old board pays for many costs related to violent crime and its aftermath. It paid the funeral costs for two victims of the Washington-area sniper last fall, as well as for Marciana Ringo, the 8-year-old Baltimore girl who was kidnapped and killed late last year.

Blackwell's claim, No. 13970, was submitted for items including a leg brace and exercise equipment. He was shot May 13 last year in the left hand, left hip and left side of his abdomen with a .357-caliber Magnum handgun.

Ravenell rebuts the board's contention that Blackwell did not cooperate with law enforcement. He said the priest met twice with prosecutors to discuss the shooting.

"He answered all their questions regarding the incident," Ravenell said. "The only thing he did not do was testify. It's ridiculous. The same entity that asked him to testify is investigating him."

The state's attorney's office is investigating accusations that 10 years ago Blackwell raped Stokes, 26, in the rectory of St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore. At the time, Stokes said, Blackwell was his father figure, and Blackwell referred to Stokes as his "son."

Ravenell said Blackwell is now employed as a coordinator for Maryland One Church, One Addict, a nonprofit organization that encourages churches to adopt recovering addicts.

Blackwell has not spoken publicly since Stokes shot him. Stokes has openly spoken about the shooting on several occasions, saying that he felt "outside my body" when he pulled the trigger. He told police detectives that he was angry that Blackwell did not acknowledge sexually assaulting him.

Jurors who acquitted Stokes said they believed his account of Blackwell's alleged abuse. They also said they found it objectionable that the priest declined to testify, or even look in Stokes' direction when he was in the courtroom.

Robin Woolford, executive director of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, said the panel could not award Blackwell the money he requested because Blackwell does not meet the criteria for victims who may be compensated.

"In this office, whenever we're within the bounds of the law to pay a claim, we do," said Woolford, himself a victim of violent crime. "This is not an adversarial position. We do not look for a way not to pay."

The board's regulations say that the victim must cooperate with law enforcement and must not have been involved in illegal activity that led to the crime. For example, a victim is disqualified from reimbursement if he or she is a drug dealer.

A team of investigators works for the board and is assigned to check all claims and claimants to ensure their integrity. Three members of the five-member board must approve a request.

Woolford said he doesn't know if the board's decision would have been different had Blackwell testified against Stokes.

"That becomes a judgment call on the part of the board," Woolford said.

The board's funding comes from federal money, as well as funds raised from local court costs and a $3 surcharge assessed on every Maryland traffic ticket. Last year, the board received 199 claims for funeral expenses in Baltimore, and paid the majority of them, Woolford said.

The maximum the board will pay for a single claim is $45,000, which includes a limit of $5,000 for funeral expenses.

There is a limit of $25,000 for families who lost the household's major wage earner to a violent crime - but a bill pending before the General Assembly could increase that to $50,000.

The board will pay a claim only if the victim does not have insurance or other means to cover the expense.

Maryland created the country's fifth criminal compensation board in 1968. The first such panel in the United States was created in California in 1965. Canada, Israel, Switzerland and a handful of other foreign countries also have similar versions of the program.

Woolford, who was shot in the neck during a robbery 28 years ago, said he can identify with victims who call him. The attack left him physically disabled.

"At times, it can be stressful if family members just found out their son or daughter has been murdered," said Woolford, 47. "Sometimes they call us within a few hours of finding out."

He said about half the claims that come cross his desk are from Baltimore. Compensation goes to people such as Qiona Davis, a 25-year-old mother of three whose husband, George Davis, was beaten into a coma in 2001 by a group of carjackers.

She was on maternity leave with their 4-month-old baby, Corey, at the time of the crime.

Her husband has not come out of the coma, and his insurance pays only $68 a month. Qiona Davis, who works as a bank teller, was given $19,000 by the board.

She learned about the board by reading the small print on the back of her husband's police report.

"He went in the hospital, and I didn't have any way of paying my bills," said Davis, who regularly visits her husband to sit by his bed. "My bills backed up terribly. I wasn't getting any social services or unemployment."

Davis is still struggling financially with medical bills and caring for her children. She used the money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to pay some of her bills.

"I was grateful for it; without it, I wouldn't have been able to pay my bills," she said. "There's no other type of help out there for women like me."

As for Blackwell, he is awaiting the response to his appeal, still hoping to get his claim approved and a $14,820 check from the board.

"We'll look at the appeal, and the board will make a decision," Woolford said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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