Little revealed of girl's death Hearing suggests kin had concerns other than child

October 24, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The night 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher starved to death, her mother and sister made fun of another sister's clumsiness and worried they would be late for work the next day when police kept them for hours at Towson police headquarters.

That testimony -- and testimony that another defendant in the murder case left the hospital where Rita died to check on the family's pets -- was among the few details to emerge yesterday at a pretrial hearing for the three charged in the Baltimore County girl's death.

Rita Fisher, a third-grader at Winand Elementary School, was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Hospital June 25 with cracked ribs and numerous bruises and weighing 47 pounds.

Charged with first-degree murder are her mother, Mary E. Fisher-Utley, 49; a sister, Rose Mary Fisher, 21; and Rose Mary Fisher's live-in boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr. They also are charged with physically abusing Rita's 16-year-old sister, Georgia.

All three defendants appeared subdued and showed little emotion at yesterday's hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

County homicide Detective Michael J. Hill testified that just hours after the girl's death, Rita's mother and sister "began to laugh about how stupid [Georgia] was" when Georgia's shoe fell off as they were leaving the hospital.

Fisher testified yesterday that she was upset about the hours police delayed her at the hospital and at the Police Department's homicide unit because, "I was concerned I'd be late for work." Fisher said she worked as a bank teller before her arrest last July.

And Scarpola testified that Fisher and Fisher-Utley were anxious about the time spent at police headquarters because "both had to go to work the next morning."

Scarpola also testified that a police officer drove him from the hospital to the family's home in Northwest Baltimore County so he could "check on the animals. It was 100-degree weather that day, and they were probably out of water."

Aside from that testimony, however, few other details came out at yesterday's nine-hour hearing, where most of the defendants' statements to police were guarded by the attorneys -- and the judge -- who took great pains not to read anything of substance aloud in the courtroom.

At the hearing's close, Judge Dana M. Levitz said he was concerned about pretrial publicity, counseling the lawyers not to talk to the media because "that's going to make it harder to get a jury."

Rita Fisher's death has prompted wide publicity and public outcry over whether the girl should have been removed from her home by the Department of Social Services before her death. Reports of child abuse cases have increased dramatically in Baltimore County in recent months.

Defense attorneys attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Levitz to throw out statements made to police by the defendants, saying their clients had been coerced, kept at the county's public safety building against their will and denied the right to call lawyers.

Levitz ruled that all the statements to police will be allowed into the trial, scheduled for Jan. 15, because he was not convinced the defendants' rights had been violated.

He ruled that the three will stand trial jointly on the murder and abuse charges. He said Scarpola will be tried separately on charges he raped one of the family's members.

Assistant State's Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr., argued for a joint trial because he said prosecutors will attempt to prove the three "conspired, punished, tortured and denied food" to Rita and Georgia.

Levitz, in granting the request, noted that it would be "a trauma" for Georgia to testify at three trials about the same alleged acts of abuse.

The defendants also testified yesterday that they were coerced and intimidated by police into making statements without hiring lawyers.

On July 9, the day Scarpola was arrested, Fisher testified, the county SWAT team broke through the front door of their home unannounced, put guns to their heads and handcuffed them.

When Fisher was arrested the next day, she said, detectives told her, "If you ask for an attorney, you wouldn't be helping Rita. I felt kind of scared."

Scarpola said he gave police his version of events and signed a document waiving his right to a lawyer after detectives played a tape recording of Fisher-Utley calling him a "monster."

Even before his arrest, on the night of Rita's death, Scarpola said police coerced him into making statements about the case.

"They said if you don't talk to us, we could make things a lot worse," he said.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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