Seven months ago, a quiet Baltimore barber named Dontee D. Stokes pulled out a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber handgun and shot a priest three times, in the hip and arm.
That much Stokes admits. But as his trial on attempted-murder and assault charges opened yesterday in a Baltimore courtroom, it became clear that Stokes will not be the only one on trial.
A Catholic cardinal has been called to testify. So has the suspended priest Stokes accuses of sexually abusing him nearly a decade ago. Many of the more than 200 potential jurors were asked yesterday about any bias against the Catholic Church or past discipline at the hands of priests and nuns.
In an opening statement in Circuit Court, Stokes's attorney stressed the allegations of abuse and the church's failure to deal with them. "Nobody, unless they've been through what this boy went through, has any idea what he was thinking when he pulled the trigger," Warren A. Brown said.
One of the most violent incidents in the Catholic Church's national sex abuse scandal, the shooting of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell has helped spur major changes in how the Archdiocese of Baltimore handles allegations of child sexual abuse. Stokes's case has been embraced by victim advocacy groups, one of which sponsored a candlelight vigil in his honor Monday evening.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has called the shooting a case of "vigilante justice" to be prosecuted just as her office would any one of about 400 nonfatal shootings each year.
In an opening statement yesterday, prosecutor Sylvester Cox recounted for jurors the facts of the case: how Stokes confronted Blackwell in front of the priest's home, demanded an apology and, after Blackwell ignored him, shot him three times. "What he was thinking about, I have no idea," Cox said.
Outside the jury's presence, he urged Judge John N. Prevas to suppress any mention of the alleged abuse -- a motion the judge denied.
Brown told jurors that Stokes broke down the night of the shooting, May 13. Stokes was frustrated that nothing was done in 1993 after he told authorities that Blackwell had molested him, and he was angry that Blackwell would not apologize for his conduct, Brown said.
Stokes, 26, has been found competent to stand trial by state psychiatrists, but a defense expert will offer a different opinion, Brown said in an interview. "At the time he pulled the trigger, his state of mind was not what the law requires for a defendant to be found guilty," Brown said.
Brown, who has subpoenaed Cardinal William H. Keeler to testify, said he will argue that the way that Keeler, the Baltimore Archdiocese and prosecutors handled Stokes's allegations in 1993 are relevant to Stokes's defense.
Stokes hails from a large African American family. Members of the family were active in St. Edward Church and close to Blackwell, the church's charismatic pastor.
As a teenager, Stokes spent a lot of time at the church and considered entering the priesthood. Blackwell began inviting him into his office after Bible study, Stokes has said. Stokes has told prosecutors that Blackwell's hugs were followed by inappropriate touching and, eventually, rape. Stokes was 17 when he told police his story.
At the time, the archdiocese placed Blackwell on leave and sent him for a psychological evaluation. Keeler decided that Blackwell had been rehabilitated and returned him to his parish. An archdiocesan lay review panel disagreed with that decision.
Citing a lack of evidence, then-Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms declined to press charges. Jessamy's office said it has since reopened the criminal investigation into Blackwell, which is nearly complete. Blackwell's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, declined to comment.
Keeler removed Blackwell from ministry in 1998 after another man came forward and accused the priest of molesting him when he was a minor, in the 1960s and 1970s.
After the shooting, Keeler said that he regretted his decision to reinstate Blackwell, and he personally apologized to Stokes. The archdiocese has begun the process of having Blackwell removed from the priesthood.
After the shooting, Keeler undertook an extensive accounting of the scope and financial cost of child abuse by priests in the archdiocese. In September, he released the names of 56 priests and brothers accused of child sexual abuse in his diocese since the 1950s.
The list, posted on the archdiocese's Web site, included details about which parishes the men served in, when the alleged misconduct occurred and how church officials handled it.
Keeler also revealed that the archdiocese and its insurers had spent more than $5.6 million in the last 20 years on legal settlements, counseling and other expenses stemming from such incidents.
"The shooting reaffirmed the cardinal's belief that no one who has sexually abused a child should be allowed to continue in ministry," said Keeler's spokesman, Stephen J. Kearney. "That event and the chances he had to speak with Dontee Stokes deepened his understanding of just how much pain is caused by abuse."
Members of Stokes's family have been vociferous in their support. They say he broke down under the pressure of continuing media coverage of priest abuse scandals.
Relatives say authorities should have believed Stokes's initial claims. "I hold everyone accountable," said Stokes's aunt, Charline Stokes, 34, a lieutenant in the Baltimore fire department. "I hold the Catholic Church responsible. I hold Stuart Simms accountable. If they had taken care of these issues back then, we would have never gotten to this point."
In June, Dontee Stokes was released on $150,000 unsecured bond and placed under house arrest. He has been living at the home of another aunt, Carmelita Mixon, in Randallstown and is being monitored by a private home detention service. He has been allowed out only to go to the doctor and to attend his grandfather's funeral.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.