"Don't drive a car in Paris," HG Wells allegedly said, "because the temptation to run over a priest would be too great." He should have moved to Baltimore, where a jury on Monday acquitted 26-year-old Dontee Stokes of attempted murder and assault in the shooting of Father Maurice J. Blackwell, erstwhile pastor of St. Edward Catholic Church. (The shooter was convicted on lesser weapons charges and will most likely get off with a combination of time served and house arrest.) Stokes, Blackwell's former altar boy, accuses the priest of abusing him for three years, starting when Stokes was 14. Interestingly, though, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair writes this one up as a racial issue, with scuttlebutt that a predominantly black jury was "motivated by the defendant's race and their animosity toward the police, prosecutors, the Roman Catholic Church and other predominantly white institutions." (Assailant and victim are both black.)
Wiley Hall, executive editor of The Afro-American, said support for Mr. Stokes was most likely connected to a sentiment that institutions have failed many blacks.
"There is a general sense that the police are not responding, the prosecutors are not responding and the drug dealers own the streets," Mr. Hall said. "And then here comes this kid who was abused, and he turned to the police and the prosecutors and church for help, and they would not listen. And then finally someone, Stokes in this case, took justice into their own hands."
That's an understandable reaction in a city where the cops leave even their narcs to be burned alive by drug dealers. But what's struck me about this story throughout has been the presumption of Blackwell's guilt. Even the Times, I recall, referred to Stokes as a "victim" when first reporting the shooting. And dig WBAL's reportage of jurors' comments:
Jurors told WBAL-TV the testimony of Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, on behalf of Stokes, made little impact on their decision. What was more significant was the refusal of the victim, the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, to testify.
Alternate juror Carlton Summers told WBAL-TV the jury felt Blackwell was only looking for sympathy.
"I think he showed up to get the sympathy of the jury, and then he plead the Fifth [Amendment] and walked out," he said.
Maybe there's more compelling evidence against Blackwell than I know of (a second accuser has come forward recently, resulting in Blackwell's suspension), but there should be some benefit of the doubt, particularly for a guy everybody agrees has been shot.
Meanwhile, WBAL's comments page suggests Blair is right in saying Charm City is "split" over the verdict. "The justice system has failed!!!!!!! What does this say about our society to let a man take the law into his own hands????" asks Tinaann. "They should give Stokes a medal!" counters Jeff Warrington.