By George P. Matysek Jr.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 25 in Richmond, Va., that John Merzbacher, a convicted child rapist and former teacher in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, must remain in prison – reversing a lower court ruling that opened the door to his possible release.
Judge Andre M. Davis, a federal appeals court judge, had issued the lower court opinion in 2010, stating that the Baltimore Circuit Court must give Merzbacher the opportunity to accept a 10-year plea deal that Judge Davis said should have been offered in 1994. Accepting the deal would have resulted in Merzbacher’s release since he has already served 15 years in prison.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit sided with the state courts, which said Merzbacher must remain in prison.
“The state court determined that Merzbacher failed to establish a reasonable probability that the prosecutor and the presiding judge would ultimately have accepted and entered a ‘mutually agreeable’ plea,” the judges wrote.
The judges said Merzbacher “has failed to demonstrate that the state court’s determination there was no reasonable probability that the plea would have been entered and accepted ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.’ ”
In a statement, Archbishop William E. Lori said, “After having met with several survivors of John Merzbacher since arriving to Baltimore in May 2012, I have come to some understanding of both the terrible acts committed by Merzbacher and the impact of his horrific crimes on those he abused.”
The archbishop said he is grateful for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision and “hopes that it gives peace to the many survivors of Merzbacher who continue to suffer decades after they were abused as children.”
“I pray this decision will bring for them some measure of closure and will eliminate any possibility of Merzbacher’s release from prison,” he said.
Archbishop Lori said the archdiocese pledges to continue to provide assistance to survivors of John Merzbacher, “whom he remembers regularly in prayer.”
Merzbacher taught at the now-closed Catholic Community School in South Baltimore.
In 1995, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman sentenced Merzbacher to four consecutive life terms for repeatedly raping a student, Elizabeth Ann Murphy. Prosecutors decided not to proceed with other cases against him, dropping more than 100 additional charges from 13 alleged victims.
Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, former Archbishop of Baltimore, opposed Merzbacher’s release. Cardinal O’Brien wrote to Judge Davis in 2008, urging him to deny a request for Merzbacher’s release. In that letter, the archbishop asked Judge Davis to “consider the destructive consequences that a ruling in favor of Merzbacher will have on many individuals.”
“The substance of his actions, whether he was convicted by a jury or pleads guilty as he now seeks, remains the same – abhorrent and criminal,” Cardinal O’Brien wrote, “and justifies the judgment and sentence already rendered.”
The archbishop said Merzbacher’s release would have an “enormous impact” on victims and their families.
“To nullify the jury’s guilty verdict and prior judge’s sentence would be a great injustice to those who risked much and received some measure of justice from Merzbacher’s original criminal trial process,” he said.
Archbishop Lori, on the day of his May 2012 installation as Archbishop of Baltimore, signed a petition to keep Merzbacher in prison.
More on this story to come.
Copyright (c) Jan. 25, 2013 CatholicReview.org