A Howard County jury convicted Paul Stephen Riggins, the Elkridge man accused of killing his wife, of first-degree murder yesterday - more than five years after Nancy Lee Riggins disappeared without a trace.
The jury of nine men and three women took five hours to return the verdict in a courtroom filled with Nancy Riggins' crying friends, who held hands and grasped heart-shaped charms - all inscribed "Love Nancy" - as they waited for the foreman to speak.
Stephen Riggins, who had walked into the room with a grin, paled and slumped as the verdict was read.
Riggins, 43, faces a possible life term at his sentencing before trial Judge Lenore R. Gelfman on Sept. 17.
For Nancy Riggins' friends and family, yesterday's verdict represented sweet justice. For five years, they have been convinced that Stephen Riggins was the cause of his wife's disappearance.
Nancy Riggins' body was never found.
"My husband Bob, Nancy's father - I wish he could have been here this day," a teary Delia Cunningham, Nancy Riggins' mother, said. "He waited so long."
Bob Cunningham died Nov. 30, 1999 - 10 months before Stephen Riggins was indicted on the murder charge.
Delia Cunningham and the rest of the family missed the reading of the verdict; they raced from the Marriott Residence Inn in Ellicott City after receiving word but arrived a few minutes too late.
"It doesn't matter because it was the right verdict," said Casey Cunningham, one of Nancy Riggins' cousins, taking deep, shaking breaths through her tears. "Never has anyone deserved that verdict more. God bless these jurors."
From the start, the case captivated. With its blend of titillating relationships - including Stephen Riggins' long-term affair with the Rigginses' teen-age baby sitter - and mystery, it attracted a growing complement of spectators to Howard County's ceremonial courtroom.
Courthouse workers sneaked a peak during their breaks. A Howard County detective, who originally came to get a sense of the questions asked in a murder trial, returned day after day, taking time off from work to attend. A woman who served on the grand jury that indicted Riggins and who had been a customer of Nancy Riggins when she was a Giant cashier spent her vacation time on the hard benches.
They joined a large contingent of Nancy Riggins' friends and family - from as far away as California - who kept vigil during the trial, writing in journals, taking notes and sketching the key players.
"I've been doing a lot of praying. I just had faith," said Bobbi Cunningham of San Francisco, Nancy Riggins' youngest sister. "I knew that justice would prevail."
Stephen Riggins' stepmother, reached at home last night, said the family would have no comment on the verdict.
The case was never a slam-dunk for prosecutors in a county that had never before tried a suspect for murder without what is traditionally the most compelling evidence of the crime - the victim's body.
So prosecutors I. Matthew Campbell and Mary Murphy tried two cases simultaneously - trying to prove both death and murder.
Through the testimony of Nancy Riggins' friends and family, they created a portrait of a woman who would not have just walked away - and certainly never would have left her 5-year-old daughter, Amanda, a little girl she doted on, behind. Therefore, they argued, she must be dead.
Through the statements Stephen Riggins made to friends, co-workers and his teen-age lover in the weeks before and after Nancy Riggins disappeared, as well as testimony about the nature of his job and an alleged jailhouse confession, prosecutors argued that Stephen Riggins had the motive and the opportunity to duck out of work without being noticed, strangle his wife sometime late July 1 or early July 2, 1996, and dispose of her body.
Their case was entirely circumstantial. Investigators, who built their case against Riggins for five years, found no blood, hair or fibers - nothing to indicate a crime scene.
It was that fact, and the fact that Riggins had no scrapes or blemishes on him that defense attorneys Joseph Murtha and George Psoras honed in on. The two, who represented Riggins on behalf of the public defender's office, argued that Nancy Riggins would have put up a fight, leaving scratches on her attacker.
They also argued that Stephen Riggins was incapable of committing the "perfect crime."
"Mr. Psoras and I attempted to emphasize the fact that without a body and in the absence of forensic evidence, the jury could find that the state hadn't proven that a murder occurred," Murtha said after the verdict.
"I believe the state's efforts at humanizing Nancy Riggins and portraying Mr. Riggins as a person who was not necessarily well-liked by Nancy's friends and family permitted the jurors to take all of the evidence and conclude that there was no other explanation."