Calling his crime "diabolical," a Howard County judge sentenced Paul Stephen Riggins, the Elkridge man convicted of killing his long-missing wife, to life in prison yesterday.
Before imposing the sentence and with crying friends of Nancy Lee Riggins huddled on courtroom benches, Judge Lenore R. Gelfman noted that the killing left the couple's only child, Amanda, who turns 11 tomorrow, without either parent - and friends and family without a grave to visit.
"The family has no place to mourn, no sense of closure," she said.
The sentence will allow Riggins, 44, to seek parole after he serves 15 years. He has served 435 days since his arrest Sept. 21 last year. Riggins was convicted of first-degree murder July 20.
Prosecutors said yesterday that the decision not to seek life without the possibility of parole was a strategic one made in the hopes that Stephen Riggins, faced one day with trying to persuade the governor and other state officials to release him, might admit guilt - and tell investigators where he put his wife's body. Riggins has maintained his innocence.
"We hope in time, this defendant will decide it is in his own interest ... to do the right thing and let us know what he did with the remains of his victim," said Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell.
He said a life sentence really means life behind bars in Maryland. The "overwhelming majority" of lifers in the state system are not granted parole and die in prison, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Unlike the trial in July, yesterday's sentencing served almost as an anti-climax for a case that produced daily drama during the nine days of testimony - from Stephen Riggins' affair with the family's baby-sitter to his attempts to explain his wife's absence in the days and weeks after he reported her missing from their Elkridge home July 3, 1996.
The trial had been a first for Howard County, where prosecutors had never tried a murder case without what traditionally is the most compelling piece of evidence - the victim's body. The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
The drama and uncertainty of the trial were replaced yesterday with the remnants of death - anger, loss and confusion.
Nancy Riggins' mother and two of her three sisters, called to the witness stand yesterday to explain how Nancy's death has affected them, talked of their anger toward Stephen Riggins and of their wish that they had tried harder to convince Nancy to leave her husband long before she disappeared.
They knew from the start, they said, that Nancy Riggins wasn't merely missing; she would never have left Amanda, who was 5 when her mother disappeared.
"If Steve didn't love Nancy, why didn't he seek a divorce? No, instead he destroyed her - as though she never was," said Delia Cunningham, Nancy's mother.
Death plan described
Nancy Riggins' death was long-planned, prosecutors said, as a way to replace one mother with another - Nancy Riggins with the teen-age babysitter, who was 14 when her four-year relationship with Stephen Riggins started.
"What man would brutally murder his own child's mother?" prosecutor Mary Murphy said. "It's a man who thinks only of himself, who's selfish."
But defense attorney George Psoras said that his client maintains his innocence and that he believes the state proved only one thing during three weeks of trial - "the absence of Nancy Riggins."
Still, he said, Riggins knows that issue is one for an appeals court to hear.
"Mr. Riggins knows he is going away. The question is for how long and where?" said Psoras, who urged Gelfman to recommend that Riggins be housed at Patuxent Institution, which he said has programs for socialization and emotional health not available at other prison sites. Gelfman denied the request. State corrections officials will determine later where Riggins serves his sentence.
After the sentencing, Psoras and defense attorney Joseph Murtha said their client had prepared himself for the likelihood of a life behind bars and was ready for the "next step" - an appeal that likely will challenge the verdict as based on insufficient evidence.
Speaking in the hall outside the courtroom, Stephen Riggins' mother, Rachel Hollidge, said she loves him and believes in him. The sentence is "tough" and the conviction is based on "hearsay evidence," she said.
"I really, really feel disappointed in the court and what they did," she said.
But for Nancy Riggins' friends, who spent five years searching for her body, holding vigils and prodding investigators, life behind bars seemed appropriate.
"He's ruined so many lives. There's no other just punishment," said Margie Speake, who worked with Nancy Riggins at the Burtonsville Giant Food store.
Hours after the sentencing was complete, Speake stood with Nancy Riggins' family and friends in front of the flowering cherry tree they had planted in the missing woman's honor after her death.
With no grave to visit, the friends used the tree in the little park near the Rigginses' Adcock Lane house as their shrine, placing flowers, hugging and telling stories about how she loved Amanda, how she loved to visit the park.
There, Speake, her hands linked with the others', offered a final prayer.
"It's been a long journey we've been on," she said. "I guess the prize was being Nancy's friend ..."