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  Deal Gets Stokes Home Detention on Gun Charges in Priest Shooting
Jurors Defend Acquittal in Attempted Murder

By Allison Klein
Baltimore Sun
December 18, 2002

Lawyers brokered a deal yesterday that ensures Dontee D. Stokes, the West Baltimore man who admits to shooting a Roman Catholic priest during an "out-of-body" experience, will not spend a day in prison and will be allowed to serve a modest sentence on home detention.

The deal, worked out in Baltimore Circuit Court and agreed to by a judge, comes a day after a city jury acquitted Stokes of attempted murder - a decision that several jurors defended yesterday as the right thing to do. Many said they believed Stokes' claim that he had been sexually abused nine years ago by the man he shot, the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell.

"We all have experienced out-of-body times in our lives," said Carlton L. Simmons, a 61-year- old retiree and an alternate juror who participated in the deliberations. "We prayed to God to give us guidance."

Simmons and at least one other juror, a 41-year-old food service manager, said they found the out-of-body defense - Stokes testified that he saw a white light and felt "outside my body" as the gun went off - to be believable. Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown, argued that his client wasn't criminally responsible for the shooting because he was having an out-of-body experience in the midst of a mental disorder.

While the jury's decision was assailed by a prosecutor who said he fears the verdict will usher in an "open season" of vigilantism on Baltimore streets, Brown applauded the jury and successfully argued yesterday that Stokes shouldn't go to prison. The jury on Monday acquitted Stokes of six felony counts, but convicted him of three minor handgun charges.

"He'll never see a day of jail," said Brown, who worked out the terms of yesterday's deal with Sylvester Cox, the prosecutor in the case.

Under the terms of the arrangement, which must be formally entered into the record at Stokes' sentencing Feb. 14, Stokes will serve a maximum of 11 months on home detention. He will also receive three years' probation, the lawyers and Judge John N. Prevas agreed.

The emotionally charged case, happening at a time when the Catholic church has been embroiled in a sex scandal, has drawn many supporters to Stokes' corner. Some have created a fund-raising Web site, www.DonteeStokesFund.net, which features several photos of Stokes when he was a young church-goer.

'God is good'

As jurors left the courtroom yesterday, several hugged Stokes' mother and aunts. Some spoke a phrase often repeated by Stokes' family during the trial: "God is good." The jury consisted of 11 women and one man.

Jurors said they thought prosecutors did a poor job preparing the case. Some also said they felt Stokes had endured enough pain because of the alleged sexual abuse, and because authorities doubted his claims during the initial investigation nine years ago.

'Unmoved' by Keeler

"This man (Stokes) has been suffering since 1993," said Catherine Robinson, 39, who participated in the deliberations. "The state's attorney knew about it and did nothing since '93. Cardinal (William H.) Keeler knew and did nothing. And that's been detrimental for this man's life."

The state's attorney's office investigated Blackwell in 1993 but never charged him. The same year, the church briefly sent Blackwell away for an evaluation, then reinstated him.

Keeler testified during the trial that he regretted returning Blackwell to his parish, St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore. The cardinal, in two of the more dramatic moments of the weeklong trial, warmly shook Stokes' hand before and after his testimony.

Keeler's testimony and apology did little to sway the jury either way, Robinson said.

"A lot of us were unmoved by the cardinal," she said.

Robinson was the jury's secretary, keeping track of votes while the members deliberated for more than eight hours Monday.

She said that at first, one or two jurors wanted to convict Stokes on the attempted-murder charge, but they were eventually swayed to acquit. After that, the initial votes on the other eight counts were nearly unanimous.

Enough pain endured

Another juror, a 41-year-old woman who declined to give her name, said she felt Stokes had endured enough pain.

"I think he's a very nice man and he's been through enough," the woman said. "We believed it was an out-of-body experience, of course. I don't think his intention was to hurt (Blackwell) at all."

Stokes testified during the trial that he shot Blackwell, the priest who baptized him, three times in the hand and hip with a .357 Magnum handgun. He said Blackwell repeatedly molested him when he was a teen-ager and that, at the time of the shooting, he was confronting the priest on a West Baltimore street to find "reconciliation."

He said in a police report that he became angry when the priest pretended to ignore him that day.

Blackwell couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. He refused to answer questions when called to the witness stand last week, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent on the grounds he might incriminate himself.

The defense brought in a psychiatrist, Michael K. Spodak, to testify that Stokes was suffering from "depersonalization" and "disassociation" at the time of the attack. Spodak said Stokes did not know what he was doing when he shot Blackwell.

A state doctor also examined Stokes, but found that he was criminally responsible for the crime. The prosecution did not submit that report to the jury. The defense did not submit its doctor's mental examination for the jury's review.

Potential 7-year term

The three minor handgun charges Stokes was convicted of could have carried a total maximum penalty of seven years in prison. With the verdict, jurors sent a handwritten note to the judge, asking him to be lenient in his sentencing.

Brown, Stokes' lawyer, said before the trial that he wanted an all-female jury because he believed women would be more sympathetic to Stokes.

'Relied on the facts'

Jurors said that while the mostly female composition of the jury may have favored Stokes, they did not base their decision on pity.

"We strictly relied on the facts," Robinson said.

The prosecution and the defense agreed yesterday to not proceed with the second phase of the trial, which would have determined whether Stokes was criminally responsible for the handgun charges he was convicted of Monday.

They also agreed on a "miscellaneous agreement" that set the 18-month sentencing guidelines for Stokes.

Cox, the prosecutor, asked the judge to send Stokes to prison for 18 months. Brown asked if Stokes could serve the sentence at home while he appeals the verdict, to which the judge agreed. Stokes was also given credit for seven months he has served under house arrest awaiting trial.

Defense plans to appeal

Brown is appealing the verdict because, he said, the manner in which the jury deliberated was improper. The 12 members of the jury deliberated along with four alternates, something that is almost unheard of in a criminal case.

The four alternates deliberated only for the first few hours with the core 12 members. After that, Prevas instructed them to remain silent and only observe.

The reason behind it, Prevas said, is that he wanted to retain the four alternates in case they were needed if the trial continued on to its second phase to determine Stokes' criminal responsibility.

Brown said that was "illegal."

"Some people might say, 'You got good results,'" Brown said. "If the extra jurors hadn't been in there, I might not have gotten any guilty counts."

Not about vigilantes

Brown also dismissed accusations that the verdict would encourage people to settle disputes with handguns.

"This verdict doesn't make a broad statement about vigilante justice or taking the law into your own hands," Brown said. "It deals with a guy who briefly lost his mind."

 
 

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