In a case with far-reaching implications for families of Maryland crime victims, relatives of a murdered Annapolis woman have reached a settlement with an unlikely opponent - the killer, who is spending life in prison but is sitting atop a trust fund worth nearly $1 million.
If the family successfully collects the $600,000 judgment against James Calvert McGee, the case could open a new route for getting damages for crime victims in Maryland, said the lawyer for the family of murder victim Katherine Huntt Ryon.
What has made this case extraordinary from the start is that few convicted killers have anything worth pursuing. But McGee is the beneficiary of a hefty trust set up for him in his mother's will.
Allen W. Cohen, Ryon's family's lawyer, said some other states would allow a crime victim or her survivors to take that money to satisfy a judgment under these circumstances.
"There is no precedent in Maryland for a crime victim to be able to take money from a trust fund where the trust fund has been set up for the benefit of the criminal," he said. "We are going to attempt to create new law in Maryland to allow the family of a murder victim to take money that would otherwise be set aside for the murderer."
Cohen said he expects the trustee to fight his legal moves to collect on that judgment. The trustee did not respond to telephone messages.
McGee was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery in the April 15, 1995, killing of Ryon, a 74-year-old retired nurse who was his mother's longtime friend and neighbor outside Annapolis, and he is serving a sentence of life without parole. His appeal is pending at the Court of Special Appeals.
The settlement between Ryon's estate and McGee, filed last week in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, calls for $100,000 compensatory and $500,000 in punitive damages - which McGee, 47, formerly of Annapolis, does not have. The case was to go to trial yesterday.
"As far as I know, Mr. McGee is like any other inmate - he doesn't have anything either," said William F. Flood III, his lawyer in the civil case.
But McGee's mother, Sally, who died in 1993, left him a trust. At his trial and sentencing in 1996, Anne Arundel prosecutors said that before McGee was arrested, he was receiving $2,850 a month from the fund.
It is valued at $877,000, according to settlement documents.
The will ordered that the trustee control the funds to provide for McGee during his lifetime. Upon his death, the rest of the money could benefit a wife and children, if there were any, and go to charities the trustee chose.
"Our position is that the family members of the murder victim are far more entitled to the benefits of the murder victim than the charities the trustee would select or Mr. McGee," Cohen said.
The 1997 lawsuit brought by Ryon's estate against McGee sought $12.1 million. Under the terms of the settlement, Ryon's family will not try to capture money disbursed to McGee or for his benefit, but can go after the trust fund itself. How much the imprisoned McGee receives these days is unknown.
Experts said details of how the trust was set up would determine whether two-thirds of the fund can go to Ryon's family. But they noted that courts are highly reluctant to break terms of trust funds.
Russell P. Butler, lobbyist for the Stephanie Roper Committee and lawyer for the Stephanie Roper Foundation, called the approach "creative." He said victim advocacy organizations believe there ought to be more ways for victims to take away the property, assets and trusts of assailants.
Almost unheard of a generation ago, lawsuits by crime victims have become common. Last year, six of the 10 largest jury awards in the country were to crime victims or their families, according to a legal trade publication.
But most such lawsuits go after third parties - the hotel where an assault took place and not the attacker, for example - because criminals are often penniless but the third party has assets or insurance or both, said James A. Ferguson, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association in Washington.
McGee said that while he stole from his mother's friend, he took no part in her slaying. He told police he watched his roommate strangle Ryon with a dog leash in her Wild Rose Shores home, but was too terrified to heed her pleas for help.
The more serious accusation in the civil suit, that McGee physically harmed Ryon, was dismissed as part of the settlement. The judgment stems from the allegation that he took her property.
McGee told police that he and Richard Wayne Willoughby Jr., 35, went to Ryon to borrow money for groceries - though his lawyer said at trial they wanted to buy drugs - and that Ryon, recognizing McGee, ushered them in. McGee told police that when he asked her for money, she said she needed the $50 she had on her. Willoughby lost control, he told police, choking the elderly woman.
McGee picked up a piece of wood and asked Willoughby to stop, but was too scared of Willoughby to do anything, he said.