Riggins trial going to jury

Panel must decide if missing woman is alive or dead

Five hours of arguments


July 20, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Jurors will begin deliberating the guilt or innocence of Paul Stephen Riggins, the Elkridge man accused of killing his long-missing wife, this morning in a case that will also force them to decide a question of life or death.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys brought testimony in Howard County's first no-body murder trial to a close last night with more than five hours of closing arguments in a Howard County courtroom packed tight with Nancy Lee Riggins' family and friends.

Stephen Riggins, 43, is charged with first-degree murder.

The case has generated intense interest in the five years since Stephen Riggins told investigators that he came home July 2, 1996, to find his wife missing and their 5-year-old daughter, Amanda, home alone and sleeping, in large part because of the mystery and innuendo surrounding Nancy Riggins' disappearance.

In the past two weeks, however, prosecutors have tried to unravel that mystery, in the process offering a scenario worthy of a prime-time soap opera complete with an affair between Stephen Riggins and the family's teen-age babysitter, an alleged jailhouse confession and body wires used to try to catch Riggins in a taped confession.

In closing arguments yesterday, prosecutors I. Matthew Campbell and Mary Murphy said that scenario, built through the testimony of 56 witnesses, proves murder despite the fact that the state was never able to offer what would traditionally be the most compelling evidence of death - Nancy Riggins' body.

"He strangled or suffocated Nancy, loaded her into the vehicle, drove her somewhere, dumped her body somewhere where her body's never been found," Murphy said.

Stephen Riggins spent four years, beginning when the babysitter was about to turn 15, teaching the youngster how to replace his wife one day, Campbell said.

"He molded her for four years, four formative years. And he wanted her to do what he needed her to do on July 2, 1996. He wanted her to move right into Nancy's bedroom in a house full of Nancy's clothes and shoes," he said.

But defense attorney Joseph Murtha, who is handling the case on behalf of the public defender's office, said the state's case amounts to "speculation."

There are no eyewitnesses, no blood spatters, no marks on Stephen Riggins in the days after Nancy Riggins disappeared to show that the two engaged in a fight for her life, he said.

The state's case would require Riggins to be both a criminal mastermind - capable of sneaking out of work unnoticed, strangling his wife without leaving evidence and placing her body in a trash bin whose contents would be immediately incinerated - and a criminal dunce - stupid enough to tell the details of his crime to convicts he shared a cell with while serving a sentence for sexual child abuse as a result of the affair.

Prosecutors "attribute to Mr. Riggins a criminal brilliance that would befuddle Sherlock Holmes," Murtha said. "The state says that Stephen Riggins pulled off the perfect crime."

With the burden of proving not only murder but also Nancy Riggins' death, Murphy said all evidence indicates that Nancy Riggins would never have left her little girl behind. Extensive searches for Nancy Riggins have turned up no trace, she said.

"It's ludicrous to suggest that Nancy Riggins is living somewhere under an assumed name, an as sumed Social Security number, an assumed date of birth," Murphy said.

Stephen Riggins had a motive to kill his wife - threats by Nancy Riggins to tell authorities of the affair - and opportunity - a window of a few hours in which he could leave work at the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant, meet with the baby sitter, then drive home and kill his wife, prosecutors said.

But Murtha said that though Stephen Riggins had problems, among them the affair and problems with his marriage, he was a man who knew how to "walk away from a marriage." Nancy Riggins was his third wife.

He asked jurors not to condemn his client because he had a relationship with the baby sitter.

"There is nothing you can look at and say that Nancy Riggins was killed on July 1, 1996, and say that beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.

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