Prosecutors closed out their circumstantial case for murder against Paul Stephen Riggins yesterday by offering experts to explain how he could have killed his wife without leaving evidence -- including her body -- behind.
Using a medical examiner, who testified that strangulation and suffocation are virtually bloodless, and an official with a Baltimore incinerator, who said organic matter is reduced to ash in 2,500-degree heat, prosecutors I. Matthew Campbell and Mary Murphy rounded out their theory of what happened to Nancy Lee Riggins five years ago.
Stephen Riggins, they theorized at the start of the trial two weeks ago, strangled his wife in their Elkridge home and dumped her body into a large trash bin whose load was carted off to an incinerator. Riggins worked for a trash hauler as recently as a few months before his wife disappeared.
Riggins, 43, is charged with first-degree murder in the disappearance of his wife, whose body has never been found. The case is Howard County's first no-body murder trial.
On the final day of testimony in Howard County Circuit Court, Dr. David Fowler, the acting chief medical examiner for Maryland, testified that strangulation and suffocation would not produce a "significant" amount of blood. But he also noted during cross-examination that a person struggling for oxygen would likely put up a fight.
"A person will do whatever they think is necessary to get a breath," he said.
Witnesses who saw Stephen Riggins in the days and hours after his wife was last seen alive on July 1, 1996, have testified that they saw no bruises or scratches on him and that the family's Adcock Lane home was immaculate as usual.
With Fowler's testimony and that of two police officers to tie up loose ends in its case, the prosecution rested. Defense attorneys Joseph Murtha and George Psoras said they have no plans to present witnesses.
Closing arguments are scheduled to begin today.
Through 56 witnesses and more than 100 exhibits during nine days of testimony, Campbell and Murphy have tried to solve the puzzle of Nancy Riggins' disappearance.
Without the woman's body, they have had the double burden of proving both death and murder. Without an autopsy or forensic evidence to illustrate a crime scene, they have been forced to theorize how they believe she was killed.
Through family and friends, they have created a portrait of the Giant Food employee and mother of one. She was not the kind of woman, witnesses testified, who would leave either the 5-year-old daughter she doted on or the friends she counseled and relied on. Stephen Riggins told investigators that he arrived home on July 2, 1996, to find his wife missing and their daughter alone and sleeping.
Through Stephen Riggins' co-workers, friends and his young paramour -- the family baby sitter -- prosecutors detailed threats the 43-year-old man allegedly made in the weeks before his wife disappeared and plans he made to replace her in the days after. Stephen Riggins asked the sitter to move into his house as soon as Nancy Lee Riggins disappeared and proposed marriage to her within days, the sitter testified.
Riggins was convicted of sexual child abuse in 1997 and jailed as a result of their affair.
And through a series of Howard County Detention Center inmates who shared a jail cell with Riggins, Campbell and Murphy offered an alleged confession and other potentially incriminating statements. David Howard Marshall, one of Riggins' bunkmates, testified that Riggins said he choked his wife during a confrontation, that she fell and hit her head, and that he could not find a pulse.
Defense attorneys attacked Marshall's testimony -- the only alleged confession to murder Riggins is supposed to have made -- by attacking the former inmate's credibility. The man sent a letter to prosecutors asking for help in his search for a job and housing, and he requested that pending criminal cases against him be "disposed of favorably" in return for his cooperation.
The defense lawyers also noted throughout testimony that despite vigorous efforts by investigators to get Riggins to confess on tape to two of the people closest to him -- the sitter and his best friend -- Riggins never did.
Yesterday, Murtha told Judge Lenore R. Gelfman that the prosecution was, in effect, illustrating "criminal brilliance" and "criminal stupidity" at the same time, as he asked Gelfman to acquit his client without sending the case to the jury. Gelfman denied the request.
Prosecutors are saying that Riggins is so smart that he pulled off the "perfect crime" but so dumb that he confessed to his fellow bunkmates, Murtha said.
"In the end, I think the state's case does amount to speculation," he said.
But Murphy said the testimony, though circumstantial, adds up to murder.
"Nancy Riggins did not walk away without anything. She did not walk away without her daughter," she said. "She is gone. She is dead."