Trust fund at stake in wrongful death suit

Victim's family won judgment against man convicted in killing

November 27, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The lawyer for a murdered Annapolis woman asked an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge yesterday to force the trust fund for one of the men convicted in her slaying to pay her family a $600,000 wrongful death judgment.

The proceedings set the stage for an appeal that could create a new route for crime-victim compensation.

But the attorney for the $877,000 trust fund said that the victim's estate has no claim to the money, and that a judge should not make new public policy in the name of victims' rights.

Both sides and the judge expect the issue to go the state's highest court. Under Maryland law, a court can invade a trust fund for few reasons, among them to pay child support and taxes.

James Calvert McGee, 47, is the beneficiary of a trust fund set up by his mother, Sally D. McGee, who died in 1993. McGee was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1995 killing of Katherine Huntt Ryon, a 75-year-old nurse and family friend.

According to the terms of the trust, whatever remains after McGee's death will go to charities selected by Frank B. Walsh Jr., the trustee.

"Should the wishes of Mrs. McGee be undone due to the bad acts of her son?" Ronald A. Baradel, lawyer for the trust fund, asked Judge Robert H. Heller Jr.

McGee and Ryon's family settled the latter's 1997 lawsuit for $600,000 in August, raising the question of the trust fund.

Baradel said the judgment for the crime victim's family is more like a debt owed to a creditor, who can't collect from a trust fund.

In this instance, the victim is dead. McGee's use of the trust fund is limited to what its lawyer approves. Baradel argued that it is wrong to take money from charities that eventually would benefit under Sally McGee's plan, and that beneficiaries of McGee's estate and Ryon's estate were "equally innocent parties."

"You are not giving to the victim and you are not giving it to the perpetrator," Baradel said later.

But Allen W. Cohen, lawyer for Ryon's family, said the distinction between McGee and the trust is artificial, as they share a law firm and have the common interest of hanging on to the money.

"To allow McGee to stand behind the shield of this trust would shock the sense of moral and just people," Cohen said.

He argued that public policy should favor crime-victim compensation over the criminal. Heller, however, said the question of whether legislators or judges should make that public policy is part of the broader issue.

McGee, now 47, maintains that he did not kill Ryon. He said he stood by as Richard Wayne Willoughby Jr., his accomplice in what he said was supposed to be a robbery, strangled her with a dog leash in her Wild Rose Shores home when she said she had no spare cash. At McGee's trial, his lawyer claimed that McGee was too stunned and scared to protect the woman he had known since his childhood. Willoughby was killed in prison.

If the victim's family wins, her relatives could end up with the entire trust account. Investments might have dropped in value since the trust's worth was estimated at $877,000 for the August settlement. Since then, the $600,000 judgment has been accruing interest at 10 percent, or $60,000, a year.

Heller made no ruling yesterday, saying that he needs time to weigh the issues raised and that he hopes the Court of Appeals will tackle the case.

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