An angry judge sentences killers of Rita Fisher Levitz criticizes social services for not rescuing 9-year-old

July 09, 1998|By Joan Jacobson and Jay Apperson | Joan Jacobson and Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County judge yesterday blasted the county's Department of Social Services for failing to prevent the murder of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher, even as he sentenced the girl's mother, sister and her sister's boyfriend to decades in prison for "sadistic, brutal and inhuman treatment."

Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz sentenced Rita's mother, Mary E. Utley, to 75 years in prison; Rita's sister, Rose Mary Fisher, to 30 years; and the sister's boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr., to 95 years.

All three were convicted of second-degree murder and child abuse in April after a two-week trial notable for grisly descriptions of abuse and torture in the third-grader's Pikesville home.

"In spite of the monstrous acts committed by the defendants on Rita Fisher, she should not have died," Levitz told a packed courtroom. "Had the Baltimore County Department of Social Services done their job, there is a real possibility that Rita Fisher would be here today."

The case prompted a widespread emotional response from many who questioned how the system, albeit overburdened, could have overlooked a series of warnings of abuse in the home.

Evidence showed that Rita and her sister Georgia -- both learning-disabled -- were beaten, bound, imprisoned, and denied food and water before Rita died, emaciated, June 25, 1997.

Georgia, Rita's 16-year-old sister, was the only witness yesterday called by prosecutors S. Ann Brobst and James O'C. Gentry Jr.

The girl, who has been under psychiatric care since her sister's death, shuffled into the courtroom, head bowed, eyes cast downward. Standing only a few feet from her sister and her mother, Georgia read her statement in a monotone, as if she were in a fog.

"I am not afraid no more. I am getting over it. I miss my little sister a lot. I wish she was alive.

"Rita was my best friend," she said. "I have her in my heart."

The judge said he knows that many would like him to punish the murderers as they punished their victims, "That is, they should be tied up, beaten, denied water, locked in a small, dark closet and abused until they die."

He gave Scarpola and Utley the maximum sentences, but went easier on Fisher, ordering that she serve her child abuse and murder sentences at the same time.

During the trial, the three defendants blamed each other for the girl's torture, and described themselves as victims of abuse. But yesterday Levitz told them: "I don't buy it. Rita is just as dead. Georgia is just as abused. And the people who did these things need to be held accountable."

He went on to chastise the Department of Social Services and singled out social worker Tear Plater, who failed to see Rita in the nearly seven weeks before the girl's death.

During the trial, Plater testified, "My purpose was not to protect Rita from abuse." Yesterday, Levitz called that testimony "outrageous," saying her statement "shows a lack of understanding of real life and people."

The judge appeared astonished that nine months after the girl's death, Plater was still a child protective service worker. She has since been reassigned.

Camille B. Wheeler, head of the department when Rita died, said yesterday that she agreed with many of the judge's comments.

"I think we did incompetent work," she said. "Whenever a child dies, we've failed."

But Wheeler, with Barbara L. Gradet, the current head of the department, condemned Plater's statement and said it does not reflect the department's approach.

"It is the philosophy of the department to protect children as a first obligation," Gradet said. "We continue to be very saddened by Rita's death. How horrific this crime was continues to influence our understanding of how evil people can be."

The Fisher case has prompted a move to better train teachers to recognize abuse and the expansion of the county's Child Advocacy Center to coordinate investigations of physical as well as sexual abuse.

As critical as he was of the social services bureaucracy, the judge saved his greatest wrath for the three murderers.

Levitz -- who was privy to reams of confidential psychiatric, school and social workers' reports on the family -- said yesterday, "I have heard from the defendants who say that they were only trying to help the children.

"I have heard from the defendants' family members who repeat this nonsense.

"Sadistic, brutal and inhuman treatment of a child is not for the purpose of helping them," he said.

The jurors refused to explain their verdict after the trial. But yesterday, juror Travis Anderson, watching in hopes of finding closure, said the jury did not believe Rita's killing was premeditated.

"I don't believe he [Scarpola] actually wanted to kill Rita because it would have ended her [disability] payments coming into the family."

In seeking leniency, lawyers for Fisher and Scarpola called psychiatrists who testified that the two suffer from impaired judgment due to mental illness and long histories of abuse. Utley's lawyer said she was abused early on by her parents and later by Scarpola, 22, an unemployed laborer.

Utley, 50, and Fisher, 21, chose not to speak in court. But Scarpola, in a rumpled suit, his face ashen, told the judge:

"I accept responsibility and I accepted more responsibility than I should have. I regret everything I did at that house.

"As far as remorse, I've been plagued with nightmares. Everybody pictures me as a monster. I've never been a monster," he said, explaining that he has always helped other people.

In the end, he seemed bewildered, choking back tears.

"I don't understand why she died," he said. "I don't understand why any of this happened."

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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