A judge granted a new trial to defrocked priest Maurice Blackwell on Friday. The conviction on charges that he molested a boy who shot him years later was thrown out less than two months after a jury found the former priest guilty.
Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger agreed with defense arguments that jurors should not have heard prosecution witnesses testify about other alleged victims of Blackwell, 58.
In a case where “credibility is a critical issue,” Berger wrote, the witnesses “improperly attempted to enhance the credibility of the state’s critical witness by injecting references to other victims.”
In a hearing earlier Friday, defense lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell argued that references that two Baltimore Police Department investigators made to other alleged victims made it impossible for his client to get a fair trial.
Ravenell told Berger that although the trial judge had instructed the jury to ignore the comments, the damage had been done. He also argued that the cumulative effect of the references may have made it hard for the jury to set them aside.
The judge said that “the bell has been rung” by repeated references to other victims during Blackwell’s trial. “This court finds it difficult, if not impossible, to un-ring that bell,” Berger said.
The state’s attorney’s office said prosecutors would review the opinion and decide whether to retry the case. Baltimore police declined to comment.
Prosecutor Jo Anne Stanton said she had instructed the witnesses not to mention other alleged victims and admonished them for their comments. She argued that the comments had not influenced jurors, noting that the jury had not convicted Blackwell of a fourth charge of child sexual abuse.
The jury convicted Blackwell of three counts of abusing Dontee Stokes, a former parishioner who shot Blackwell in fit of rage in 2002, nearly a decade after the alleged abuse. Stokes, 29, was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted on gun charges.
Stokes said that although he didn’t agree with Friday’s ruling, he couldn’t get worked up about it.
“My emotions are numb when it comes to this,” Stokes said. “If I put my emotions into this, then I won’t be here.”
Stokes’ attorney, Warren Brown, said his client had known a new trial was a possibility.
“The real concern is not over [the judge’s] actions. It is with regard to the state’s position on whether they will try it again,” he said. “I don’t think he will be acquitted in this city.”
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.
Courts around the country have issued different rulings on whether prosecutors in molestation cases can bring up abuse allegations not directly related to the charges. Pop star Michael Jackson suffered a major setback in his molestation case last month when a judge ruled that jurors could hear about allegations involving other boys.