Lawyer says Carroll man on trial in woman's death did not plan an attack

Contends Costley visited home of ex-mother-in-law only to see his children

October 07, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The man charged with fatally stabbing his former mother-in-law, well-known Baltimore-area radio talk show regular "Helga from Westminster," did not plan to kill her and only wanted to see his children, a lawyer for the accused said yesterday in a Carroll County courtroom.

During opening statements, George Psoras Jr., attorney for Leon A. Costley Jr., focused on his client's emotional state after the collapse of his marriage and a court order granting custody of his two children to their mother, Kristina Costley. She was the only daughter of the victim, Helga Nicholls. Psoras said his client had wanted to see his children, especially his son, whose birthday was a week away.

"He wanted to see his kids, that's all he wanted," Psoras said. "Did the conduct of Mr. Costley cause the death of Helga Nicholls? Was the killing deliberate and premeditated? Or was it something else that happened that day?"

Prosecutors said that Leon Costley intended to kill his mother-in-law, whom he blamed for the loss of his money, his home, his children, his car and his wife. They said that Costley - who was living at Boston Inn in Westminster and was without a car - took a new truck on a test drive, bought an 8-inch butcher's knife at Target and drove to Nicholls' house. Prosecutors said he went in through the kitchen entrance unannounced and choked Nicholls, then stabbed her more than two dozen times - all while his 5-year-old son was upstairs. His 12-year-old adopted daughter ran next door to a neighbor's house to call 911 during the attack.

"As a result of a not-so-unusual dissolution of a marriage, we have a horrendous outcome," said Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes. "We have a senseless and brutal beating and bludgeoning of a grandmother who was baby-sitting her grandchildren."

Costley, 38, is charged with first-degree murder and weapons offenses in the death Aug. 14 last year of Nicholls, 53. He has been held at the Carroll County Detention Center since that time.

Yesterday, Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway dismissed Costley's plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity but let stand his plea of not guilty.

Kristina Costley, the prosecution's first witness, told the jury of five women and seven men about her close relationship with her mother and sobbed as Barnes asked her to identify her mother in graphic crime scene photographs.

She said her ex-husband blamed Helga Nicholls for the divorce. She told the court that she discovered a bloody football jersey and a crumpled Target receipt for a butcher's knife at the house two days after her mother's death.

Another witness testified that Leon Costley had threatened to kill Nicholls. Michael Forome, Costley's former co-worker at BFI, a trash-hauling company, testified that Costley had said he would stab his mother-in-law to death.

"I couldn't believe it actually happened," Forome said.

Nicholls was a well-known voice on Baltimore's radio waves, a frequent caller to local talk-radio shows. The morning she was killed, she called WCBM's Tom Marr to express her distrust of the Saudi government. Within an hour of hanging up, she was dead.

About 10:45 a.m. Aug. 14, police received a call from a house next to Nicholls'. Nicholls' 12-year-old granddaughter told them her father had attacked her grandmother and was holding her brother hostage, charging documents state. State police arrived at Nicholls' house in the 1600 block of Old Manchester Road and, within an hour, a tactical team entered the house and arrested Costley as he walked down the stairs near the front door.

Costley's son was found unharmed upstairs. Troopers found Nicholls' body in the kitchen, police said.

Leon and Kristina Costley married in 1995, separated in 2000 and finalized their divorce in June last year.

At the time of the killing, Leon Costley had been trying to change the court-ordered terms governing visitation of his son, police said.

Costley had been ordered to stay away from his ex-wife, court records show. The day of the killing, he had failed to appear in court in a case stemming from an incident in which his wife's tires were punctured, court records show.

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