Carroll man convicted in former in-law's death

Circuit Court judge sets sentencing for Jan. 7

October 10, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County man accused of stabbing to death his former mother-in-law in front of his two children was found guilty of murder yesterday.

A Carroll County Circuit Court jury deliberated about four hours before finding Leon A. Costley Jr. guilty of first- and second-degree murder and weapons offenses in the death of Helga Nicholls on Aug. 14 last year.

Prosecutors have said they intend to seek a life sentence with no chance for parole.

Judge Michael M. Galloway ordered a pre-sentence investigation and psychiatric evaluation for Costley. The judge scheduled sentencing for Jan. 7.

Nicholls was a frequent caller to Baltimore talk-radio programs, where she was known as "Helga from Westminster."

Overcome with emotion, Kristina Costley -- who is the defendant's ex-wife and the victim's daughter -- dropped her head to her knees before leaning into her father's embrace, tears streaming down her face. About 10 friends and relatives of Nicholls -- including one who traveled from Texas -- cried as they hugged one another.

Costley, 38, stared at the five women and seven men on the jury as they were polled on their verdict. As he was led out of the courtroom by sheriff's deputies, he looked toward Kristina Costley and her family and said, "You'll get yours."

For Kristina Costley, the verdict was the right one.

"There is some relief. Justice is on its way," she said. "This can't bring her back. Nobody wins in this. ... But my kids are not going to use this horrible thing in their life to turn their lives upside down. My children are going to become something."

During three days of testimony, prosecutors presented evidence to support their contention that Leon Costley intended to kill Nicholls because he blamed her for his divorce and its aftermath: losing his home, custody of his children, his car and his job.

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.

In his closing argument yesterday, defense attorney George Psoras Jr. sought to show that the killing was not premeditated. He said his client wanted to visit his two children, whom he hadn't seen for nearly a year. He especially wanted to see his 5-year-old son, whose birthday was less than a week away.

During the trial, Psoras did not present witnesses, but sought to highlight discrepancies between reports and state testimony. He argued that Nicholls might have put her hands on a hammer to protect her grandchildren, he said, and that there might have been a struggle.

After the verdict, he said his questions might have given the jury pause, but added, "In the end, it's apparent the evidence was too overwhelming for the jury to come to any other conclusion than first-degree murder."

Summing up the prosecution case for the jury, Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes focused on Costley's decisions the morning of the killing. Living then at a Westminster hotel, Costley walked to a car dealership and took a truck for a test drive, then went to a local Target store to buy an 8-inch-long chef's knife, testimony had shown.

Then he drove to the Nicholls' residence on Old Manchester Road just outside Westminster, Barnes told the jury -- emphasizing that medical evidence showed that Nicholls had suffered more than 30 injuries, including 13 stab wounds.

"No one else ... had a motive of hatred that'd been building for years and attributing everything that was lost to this lady," Barnes told the jury. "The evidence is overwhelming. If there ever was a first-degree murder case, this is it."

Perhaps most critical to the case, he said, was the eyewitness testimony of Nicholls' two grandchildren, who were at their grandmother's house preparing for a day of back-to-school shopping when their estranged father walked in unannounced.

"The most aggravating fact of this case was that a 12-year-old and a 5-year-old had to witness this murder," Barnes said after the verdict was announced.

Brittany Costley, now 13, testified this week that she was in the living room while her grandmother, who had called a radio-talk show that morning, mopped the kitchen floor.

The girl said she heard screaming and saw Leon Costley, her adopted father, choke and stab her grandmother. She ran to a neighbor's house for help and called 911.

Costley's son, Tyler, now 7, testified that he saw his father repeatedly stab his grandmother, then spit on her. He also said that Costley gave him money he had taken from Nicholls' house that day.

A state police 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.

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