Riggins' murder conviction upheld

Body of Elkridge man's wife has never been found

February 27, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Maryland's intermediate appellate court upheld yesterday the first-degree murder conviction of Paul Stephen Riggins, the Elkridge man who was found guilty of killing his long-missing wife even though her body has never been found.

While the case was entirely circumstantial and investigators found no blood or other forensic evidence to indicate a crime scene, it was still enough to convince a jury that Nancy Lee Riggins was dead, and that Stephen Riggins killed her, Judge James A. Kenney III wrote for a three-judge panel on the Court of Special Appeals.

"There was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support a reasonable inference that he had contemplated killing the victim prior to the events of the night of July 1 and the morning of July 2, 1996, and that ... he went to his house to kill her," Kenney wrote. "That was how he would `take care of' the situation that had escalated to crisis proportions."

The panel also rejected arguments that the trial judge, Howard Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, erred by not declaring a mistrial after one witness' testimony and by refusing to include a special jury instruction that Stephen Riggins' alleged jailhouse confession to a fellow inmate needed to be corroborated by evidence that a crime occurred.

Riggins is serving a sentence of life in prison.

Prosecutors said they were elated with the decision.

But Assistant Public Defender Stacy McCormack, who argued the case before the appellate court, said the issues were "close calls" for the court. The state presented ample evidence of motive, but "there's no evidence that a murder actually took place," she said.

She said her office likely will ask the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, to review yesterday's decision.

"I don't think this will be the last stop for the case," she said.

Riggins, 46, was convicted after a 2 1/2 -week trial that forced prosecutors, without any blood, hair, fibers or other evidence of a crime scene, to prove both death and murder.

Through the testimony of Nancy Riggins' family and friends, prosecutors painted a picture of a devoted mother who never would have walked away from the 5-year-old daughter she adored. Amanda Riggins, now 13, lives on the West Coast with Nancy Riggins' sister and brother-in-law.

And through the statements Stephen Riggins made to friends, co-workers and the family's teen-age baby-sitter - a girl with whom Stephen Riggins had a long-running affair - prosecutors argued that he had the motive and the opportunity to kill his 37-year-old wife and dispose of her body in July 1996.

Nancy Riggins disappeared hours after several new revelations about the affair came out: The baby-sitter told Nancy Riggins that her relationship with Stephen Riggins had lasted four years; Nancy Riggins threatened to tell the girl's mother; and Stephen Riggins told the baby-sitter he would "take care of it," according to testimony.

The case was a first for Howard County: Prosecutors had never tried a case without what is traditionally the most convincing evidence of murder - the body. As a result, investigators took more than four years to build the case before presenting it to a grand jury.

During that time, Riggins was convicted of sexual child abuse after his affair with the baby-sitter came to light. And Nancy Riggins' friends and colleagues at the Giant Food supermarket in Burtonsville kept the case in the public eye, marking the anniversary of her disappearance with vigils and talking about her on national talk shows.

Yesterday, Nancy Riggins' mother, Delia Cunningham, and three sisters expressed relief at the decision and thanked investigators and prosecutors.

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