Murder case's pursuit defended

Prosecutors respond to judge's criticism in Wiggins' appeal

October 18, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County prosecutors vigorously defended yesterday their pursuit of a case against a Maryland death row inmate whose murder conviction and sentence were voided by a federal judge, saying it would have been "totally irresponsible" to do otherwise in light of the evidence.

Responding to courtroom criticism this week by U.S. District Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz that state lawyers lacked "moral concern" for the case, county State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said that "it was not only our responsibility, it was our duty" to seek and sustain a murder conviction and death sentence against Kevin Wiggins in the killing of an elderly Woodlawn woman.

"Anyone who would not have prosecuted this case would not have deserved to be a prosecutor. And the case has not changed today," she said.

Also yesterday, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. reaffirmed his decision to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the ruling by Motz voiding Wiggins' murder conviction and death sentence in the slaying of Florence Lacs, who was drowned in the bathtub of her apartment 13 years ago. Curran said in a statement that the finding of guilt and death sentence by state trial courts met the constitutional standards of being "reasonable applications of the law."

At a federal court hearing Monday, Motz granted a motion by state lawyers to have Wiggins remain in prison pending the 4th Circuit appeal, but questioned why death penalty supporters weren't "concerned about a case such as this" and asked, "Why isn't this case of moral concern to the state, or don't you care?"

In voiding Wiggins' conviction and death sentence a month ago, Motz ruled the state had insufficient evidence to find Wiggins, now 40, guilty of Lacs' killing and faulted his trial lawyers for not presenting evidence of his limited mental ability and childhood abuse at his sentencing.

Wiggins had worked as a painter in Lacs' apartment complex the last day she was seen alive, and that night, he and his girlfriend, Geraldine Armstrong, used Lacs' car and credit cards.

Wiggins' fingerprints were not found in Lacs' apartment, while five unidentified prints were.

Motz suggested in his ruling voiding the conviction that one or both of Armstrong's brothers -- one of whom had lived in Lacs' building -- might have had a role in the 77-year-old widow's death. Motz speculated that Wiggins could have stolen Lacs' property, and one or more of the brothers could have returned to Lacs' apartment with the victim's keys to look for more property and killed the woman.

While taking care to avoid direct criticism of Motz for his comments Monday, county prosecutors said yesterday that they wanted to break their silence in the case since the judge's ruling. They said they wanted to respond to suggestions that they had acted immorally in originally seeking a murder conviction and death penalty and in urging the attorney general's office to appeal Motz's ruling to the federal appeals court.

"We've been very mindful of our moral obligation," said S. Ann Brobst, an assistant Baltimore County state's attorney who was the lead prosecutor in the case. "Any suggestion to the contrary, we wanted to have an opportunity to respond."

Prosecutors acknowledged -- as they did at Wiggins' 1989 trial -- that the evidence was circumstantial, but said in their view it pointed to Wiggins and no one else. They said it was "common sense" that Lacs was killed before her keys and credit cards were stolen.

Brobst derided the suggestion that the unidentified prints belonged to "the real killers."

"Much more reasonable is that they were Mrs. Lacs' prints," Brobst said.

She acknowledged that prosecutors could never verify that the prints were those of the victim, because investigators could not get a usable print from Lacs by the time her body was found two days after she was last seen alive.

Brobst also acknowledged that she had "no explanation" for a cap with the Ryder truck company emblem found in Lacs' apartment that was not linked to Wiggins.

Brobst and Assistant State's Attorney Robin Coffin, who helped prosecute the case, also brushed aside what they called the idea of the "phantom Armstrongs" -- referring to the brothers of Wiggins' girlfriend.

"There's absolutely no evidence linking her brothers to that crime at all," said Brobst.

Brobst said that at the request of Wiggins' appellate attorney, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., county police checked the unidentified fingerprints against prints of Armstrong's brothers and found no matches.

Verrilli confirmed he asked several months ago for fingerprint tests in preparation for a possible evidentiary hearing in federal court that was never held, and said he received a brief report saying no matches had been found.

But he said he could not put "a great deal of stock" in the tests until he knew more about how the tests were conducted.

"Who knows whose they were? They were undistinguishable prints," Verrilli said. "The key thing is, there is zero evidence it was Wiggins" who was in Lacs' apartment.

Brobst said it was possible that Wiggins was wearing gloves and left no fingerprints, or that he left no identifiable prints in the apartment.

"If Kevin Wiggins' prints were in the apartment, we would have used that evidence," she said.

Brobst and Coffin said they didn't bring any charge against Geraldine Armstrong because they wanted to focus their resources on the capital murder case -- though she had signed the credit card receipts and failed a police polygraph test asking about her possible involvement and knowledge of the case.

Armstrong later testified against Wiggins at the trial, saying he arrived at her home a couple of hours after leaving work at Lacs' apartment complex and that he told her that the car and credit cards belonged to his aunt.

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