In a victim's rights case likely to reach the state's highest court, relatives of a slain elderly woman are asking a Maryland appeals court to rewrite state law to force the nearly $1 million trust fund for one of the men convicted in her murder to pay them $600,000 for a wrongful-death judgment.
The outcome of the case could set a precedent that creates an unusual way for victims of crimes to draw from trust funds that benefit felons - a rare situation. A broader ruling could extend to victims of other wrongs, such as traffic accidents, which would be more common. No case in Maryland has dealt with a similar situation, and Mississippi is the only state to allow what the family is seeking.
"A trust is money held by one person for the benefit of another. When the person for whom it is held causes injury, the question is whether that money should benefit that person or the injured person," said Allen W. Cohen, attorney for the family of Katherine Huntt Ryon.
Cohen has appealed a ruling last month by Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. Heller said Ryon's family could not turn to a trust fund established for James Calvert McGee, convicted of murder in Ryon's 1995 death, for a $600,000 judgment against McGee, who is serving life without parole.
The trust fund was established to benefit McGee in his mother's will, and, with few exceptions, other uses of the money are barred.
Heller wrote that based on the facts of the murder, although it is "very tempting, this court may not rewrite the law."
Cohen said he will ask the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to hear the case, bypassing the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appeals court.
Lawyers for the trust fund could not be reached yesterday.
Experts said that while trial courts typically follow precedent, appellate courts can make new law that applies only to this case or would be binding in other cases around the state.
"It seems to me it is a very good argument. Clearly you have an inmate who has a very long sentence, and you have an innocent victim of crime," said Russell P. Butler, lobbyist for the Stephanie Roper Committee and lawyer for the Stephanie Roper Foundation, advocacy groups for crime victims.
Maryland makes few exceptions for using trust fund money for anyone other than the beneficiary. It can be used to pay the beneficiary's court-ordered child support, for example, but commercial creditors cannot get into it.
McGee, 47, was convicted of 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. A co-defendant, who he maintained strangled Ryon with a dog leash during a robbery gone awry while he was too scared to intervene, was killed in prison.
In August, the trust fund was valued at $877,000, down from the $1.2 million estimate during McGee's trial.