Death row inmate seeks new trial

March 29, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

Death row inmate Kevin Wiggins is back in Baltimore County Circuit Court, seeking a new trial or a life sentence on his 1989 conviction for the murder of a 77-year-old Woodlawn woman.

In a post-conviction hearing, he has claimed that he was abused as a child, cited statistics showing that blacks are underrepresented in the county's jury pool and raised questions about the trial attorneys' inexperience.

Wiggins, now 32, had no criminal convictions until he was sentenced to death in October 1989 for the murder and robbery of Florence Lacs. She was found Sept. 17, 1988, drowned in her bathtub -- which had been filled with household chemicals -- at the Clark Manor apartments, where Wiggins worked as a painter. He was caught with her car, credit cards and a ring.

Judge John F. Fader II began a hearing Jan. 7 on a petition by attorneys from Jenner & Block in Washington. It continued yesterday with testimony by Wiggins' trial attorneys, Carl Schlaich and Michele Nethercott, both relatively new assistant public defenders at the time.

Ms. Nethercott, then handling her first capital case and her third jury trial, said she thought the defense was strong because the assistant medical examiner and a defense expert placed time of death a day after Wiggins was seen in the apartment hallway Sept. 15. A friend of the victim said she spoke to her after the murder supposedly occurred.

But "just before the trial date, the essence of the defense appeared to be falling apart," Ms. Nethercott said. The medical examiner refashioned her testimony and the defense expert refused to testify.

Ms. Nethercott agreed with Donald B. Verrilli Jr., one of the three new attorneys, that she and Mr. Schlaich could have sought a postponement, had her testify herself as a defense witness about what she was told by the medical examiner or cross-examined the examiner.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst yesterday sought to "set the record straight," noting that Wiggins' former girlfriend corroborated the state's case.

In testimony Jan. 7, Richard A. Seltzer, a professor of political science at Howard University with an interest in statistics and jury behavior, said only three blacks were among 104 jurors called for the sentencing portion of Wiggins' trial, af

ter he was found guilty by a judge in August 1989.

Hans H. Selvog, of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va., said Wiggins' mother was an alcoholic who abandoned him and his sisters for weeks at a time, locking the kitchen so they had to beg for food or scrounge garbage to eat.

When Kevin was 5, his mother punished him for getting into the kitchen by placing his hands on the stove burner, and at 6, he was placed into foster care, where the foster mother was abusive.

The children moved to a second foster home, where Kevin remained from 1968 to 1977 -- and where his foster father raped him, Mr. Selvog said. He said the boy became lethargic, unable eat to the point that he needed medical attention, and was "starved for affection." His IQ is 71 -- borderline for mental retardation.

Wiggins was placed with several other families, where he caused problems by refusing to sleep in a bed or to eat, and where he sometimes suffered further abuse. At 16, he was raped by the older sons of one foster mother, Mr. Selvog said.

Wiggins quit school in 11th grade to join the Job Corps. There, a staff member befriended him, took him out drinking -- and molested him.

From lifelong abuse, Wiggins is depressed and suicidal, he said.

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