Death row -- despite a lack of evidence

Justice: A judge says a man sentenced to die 12 years ago might be innocent, but the state resists freeing Kevin Wiggins.

October 14, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

From the beginning, Kevin Wiggins swore he was innocent.

Not of everything, mind you. He admitted that he stole Florence Lacs' car, used her credit cards and pawned her ring.

But the occasional house painter - who had no criminal record and whose IQ indicated "borderline mental retardation" - always insisted that he didn't murder the 77-year-old widow in her Woodlawn apartment in 1988.

After Baltimore County Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel found him guilty in August 1989 of drowning Lacs in her bathtub, Wiggins blurted out: "I didn't do it. He can't tell me I did it."

And shortly before a jury sentenced him to die two months later, he told the panel, "I did not murder Ms. Lacs. I can't believe the state wants you to give me the death penalty."

Now, 12 years after Wiggins was put on death row, a federal judge has found there is reason to doubt that Wiggins murdered Lacs and reason to believe that someone else did.

In a strongly worded ruling last month, U.S. District Court Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz voided the murder conviction and death sentence, declaring that "no rational finder of fact could have found Wiggins guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt." Motz said there was not enough evidence to convict Wiggins of the crime and said his trial lawyers did not represent him adequately at sentencing.

A review of several hundred pages of court documents in the case reveals a lack of evidence that Wiggins was in Lacs' apartment and shows that Wiggins was represented at his Circuit Court trial and sentencing by a pair of inexperienced public defenders. One of the lawyers said later that she was "frankly overwhelmed" by the case and acknowledged when Motz's decision was released that she had been "haunted" by the outcome.

Motz's ruling came on the first appeal in federal court and last round of judicial review for Wiggins, a high school dropout who spent most of his early years in a succession of foster homes and most of his adult life in a series of low-paying jobs. He is described by the couple of people who know him outside of prison as an introvert who has had no contact with members of his family and who likes to watch the Discovery Channel and listen to a tape of nature sounds.

Lawyers for the state of Maryland are appealing Motz's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the appellate court upholds Motz's decision on the conviction and sentencing, Wiggins will go from death row to freedom, because the time he has spent in jail has exceeded the 10-year term he was given for robbery. Until the 4th Circuit rules, the state is seeking to have Wiggins, now 40, remain in prison.

Contending that Motz went too far in his decision, Assistant Attorney General Ann N. Bosse argued in a court filing that Wiggins should remain in prison because the state was likely to win its appeal and because Wiggins posed a potential threat to society.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the appeal of a Tennessee death row inmate whose lawyers contended that he was poorly represented at his sentencing. His death sentence had been struck down by a federal judge in Nashville but reinstated by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said she could not discuss the case because it was under appeal. But she said that she had asked the attorney general's office to take the case to the 4th Circuit and noted that Wiggins' conviction and sentencing have been upheld by state courts.

"I assume reasonable minds can differ," she said. "We have a circuit judge and the highest court in the state saying [the evidence] was sufficient."

Those who knew Lacs, a retired seamstress who had no children and lived alone in a one-bedroom garden apartment on Woodlawn Drive, are upset and perplexed by the decision.

"I couldn't understand his ruling, after all this time and all these trials," said Lacs' niece, Barbara L. Stauffer, who lives in Southern Maryland. "It brings back all the memories."

But Motz's decision - which comes as the death penalty is undergoing increasing scrutiny in Maryland and elsewhere - surprised and delighted state opponents of capital punishment.

"It was not on my radar screen," Cathy Knepper, state death penalty coordinator for Amnesty International, said of Wiggins' case. "I didn't know we had anyone left on death row with a claim of innocence."

Wiggins' appellate attorney, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., a Washington lawyer who has handled the case since 1993, said he'd consider making his client available for an interview in the near future, though he could not do so now.

"The last 12 years of his life have been as bleak as you can imagine," Verrilli said the day Motz's ruling was released. "This is a moment when some sunshine broke through."

One person who has been close to Wiggins during most of his time in prison said of Wiggins, "His response has been mixed, to be quite honest about it."

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