Judge keeps murder trial in Balto. Co. Defense lawyers cite publicity in starvation death of 9-year-old girl

October 11, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

A judge yesterday refused to move the murder trial in the starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher outside Baltimore County, ruling that pretrial publicity will not necessarily prevent the three defendants from getting an unbiased jury.

Rita's mother, sister and the sister's boyfriend -- all charged with first-degree murder -- listened expressionless, each clutching a Bible, as their lawyers played emotionally charged, videotaped news coverage of the girl's death in June for circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz.

Meanwhile, in a nearby courtroom, Judge John O. Hennegan sent Rita's father, Howard D. Utley, to prison for 4 1/2 years for violating probation in a 1995 case in which he was convicted of sexual child abuse. Utley, who left the family several years ago, was arrested in New Mexico in August and charged with failing to visit a Maryland probation officer after his 1996 release from jail.

In the murder case, Levitz told defense lawyers that he does not believe pretrial publicity was too extensive or one-sided to prevent a fair trial in Baltimore County. But he said he would wait until jury selection begins in January to make a final determination.

"I'm going to see in [jury selection] if it's possible or not possible to have a fair trial," said Levitz. If an impartial jury cannot be selected, he will not hesitate to move the case from the county, he said.

In addition to murder charges, the girl's sister, Rose Mary Fisher, 21; her boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr., 21; and mother Mary E. Fisher-Utley, 49, are charged with several counts of assault and child abuse of Rita and her 15-year-old sister, Georgia.

Georgia, now in foster care, is expected to be a key prosecution witness at the January trial.

Lawyer Larry Polen, representing Rose Mary Fisher, told Levitz an impartial jury could not be chosen due to a "parade of publicity" about the slaying. Rita weighed 47 pounds at the time of her death, had cracked ribs, and marks on her wrists and ankles indicated she had been bound.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst, arguing that the case should stay in Baltimore County, said the publicity "doesn't raise to the level of a media circus."

Levitz said there may be no place in Maryland where news of the girl's death has not reached, since circulation of The Sun and broadcasts of local television stations reach nearly every county.

In the case of Rita's father, Howard Utley, 50, admitted he never reported to a probation officer or attended a program for sex offenders. But he asked for leniency yesterday, saying he had a law-abiding life in New Mexico.

The original sexual abuse case, he said, "was built up worse than what it was. I did my time in jail. I'm not a bad guy. I'm not the kind of guy who does this stuff for a living."

Assistant State's Attorney John Cox urged prison for Utley, saying, "I can think of no other category of persons that should be more closely supervised than child sex offenders."

While ordering Utley imprisoned for 4 1/2 years, the judge said he would reconsider the sentence if a suitable program can be found in New Mexico that treats sex offenders.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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