Closing arguments expected today in Nicholls murder case

Officer testifies victim's former son-in-law said he should get death penalty

October 09, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Closing arguments are expected today in the murder trial of a man accused of stabbing to death his former mother-in-law, after Carroll County prosecutors rested their case yesterday and the defense attorney said he did not plan to call any witnesses.

The Carroll County Circuit Court jury of five women and seven men could begin deciding the fate of Leon A. Costley Jr. by this afternoon. Costley, 38, is charged with first-degree murder in the death Aug. 14, 2002, of Helga Nicholls, a Westminster woman who was known as a frequent caller to Baltimore talk-radio programs.

Yesterday, prosecutors presented as witnesses police officers, including a state police homicide detective who interviewed Costley shortly after the killing. She told jurors that Costley told her that he should be taken to jail and given the death penalty.

"He told me he didn't remember what happened, but that he wished it wouldn't have happened," said the homicide investigator, Cpl. Christina Becker.

Costley also said he blamed his ex-wife's parents, Robert and Helga Nicholls, for his divorce, Becker testified.

On Monday, Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway dismissed Costley's plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

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.

Becker testified that Costley told her that on the morning of Aug. 14, he had walked to a Westminster car dealership on Route 140 from the Boston Inn, where he had been paying $250 a week for rent for several months. He told her he took a silver pickup truck on a test drive.

Testimony from other witnesses Tuesday showed that he drove to a local Target store, where video surveillance cameras showed him purchasing an 8-inch chef's knife. Costley said he drove to Nicholls' house outside Westminster in the 1600 block of Old Manchester Road so that he could visit his two children, whom he hadn't seen for nearly a year, Becker testified.

The detective said Becker told her he entered the house through the kitchen door, but that he did not volunteer any more information about what happened next, except to say that he saw Nicholls holding a hammer.

In questioning witnesses throughout the three days of testimony, defense attorney George Psoras Jr. has repeatedly raised the possibility that Nicholls, being protective of her grandchildren, might have tried to block Costley from going from the kitchen to other parts of her house. Witnesses said Costley sustained minor injuries.

On Tuesday, Nicholls' two grandchildren took the stand to say they saw Costley stab their grandmother.

About 10:45 a.m. Aug. 14, police received a call from a house next to Nicholls'. Nicholls' 12-year-old granddaughter told them that her father had attacked her grandmother and was holding her brother hostage, charging documents state.

Costley, who is not expected to take the stand, was only heard in court on recorded phone calls. He sounded agitated as he spoke to police, telling them he had hostages and that he had lost his job, his car, his children and his wife. His 5-year-old son Tyler can be heard in the background crying and screaming, "My daddy is stabbing my grandma!"

State police arrived at Nicholls' house 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.

Dr. David R. Fowler, the state's chief medical examiner, testified that the cause of Nicholls' death was "multiple blunt and sharp force injuries." He said she had been stabbed 13 times.

Fowler also noted a wound to her right forearm consistent, he said, with a defensive posture. After observing the two knives entered into evidence - including the one that apparently was bought at Target - he told the court that those weapons could cause the wounds.

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