Defendant's children testify against him at murder trial

Youths say they witnessed grandmother's stabbing in Westminster home

Carroll County

October 08, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Two children took the stand in a Carroll County courtroom yesterday and told jurors that they saw their father stab their grandmother in her Westminster home.

Testifying on the second day of his father's murder trial, Tyler Costley, 7, said that after the stabbing, his father spit on the woman, stole her money and then hid the weapon. Earlier yesterday, his sister, Brittany Costley, 13, said she ran from the house to get help when she saw her grandmother being attacked.

Leon A. Costley Jr. is charged with first-degree murder and weapons offenses in the death Aug. 14, 2002, of Helga Nicholls, his former mother-in-law. Prosecutors have said that Costley blamed Nicholls for the collapse of his marriage with her daughter.

Nicholls, who was known for her regular calls to Baltimore talk-radio shows, had been on the phone with WCBM's Tom Marr the morning of the attack. Brittany Costley, the defendant's adopted daughter, said she was in the living room watching television when she heard screaming in the kitchen.

She turned and saw her grandmother being choked. "Then it looked like she broke away but she fell somehow."

The girl said she dialed 911 but dropped the phone.

"That's when I saw him get down on his knees. That's when he pulled something out of his pocket - a knife - and stabbed her - my grandmother," the girl testified. After seeing the bloody knife, she said, she ran to a neighbor's house to call police.

Later yesterday, Tyler testified, his feet dangling 6 inches above the floor in the witness stand.

Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes asked the boy how many times his grandmother was stabbed. "More than once?" the prosecutor asked.

Tyler nodded. "Twenty times," he said. Then, the boy said, "He spit on her on the stomach."


Tyler said that his father then went upstairs and put a knife beneath his grandmother's mattress. The boy said his father gave him his silver necklace, and money he had taken from Nicholls, as gifts for his birthday, which was less than a week away. He said his father wanted to take him from the house, but the boy resisted.

State police handled the call as a hostage situation. Within an hour, a tactical team entered the house and arrested Costley as he walked down stairs near the front door.

Tyler was found unharmed upstairs. Troopers found Nicholls in the kitchen, dead from apparent stab wounds, police said.

Seeing his son prompted Costley's first signs of emotion since the trial began Monday. He smiled at him with tear-filled eyes throughout his testimony, even when the boy looked at him and said, "When it was over, when he finished stabbing her, I didn't really like him. I don't like him anyways, not anymore."

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 estranged 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.

Widower's testimony

Nicholls' husband also testified yesterday.

Defense attorney George Psoras Jr. asked whether Robert V. Nicholls Sr. harbored a dislike for his former son-in-law because of his race. Costley is black and the Nicholls are white.

Nicholls denied such feelings and said that he and his wife always included Leon Costley in family gatherings but that Costley kept to himself and was "unsociable."

Nicholls, who was at work when his wife was killed, became emotional on the stand as he spoke about her dedication to her family.

Prosecutors also presented witnesses from a Westminster car dealership and Target store who testified to Costley's transactions - taking a truck on a test drive and the purchase of an 8-inch chef's knife.

Both were recovered at the Nicholls house, but the knife was found with its handle broken from the blade.

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