Murderer considers offer of life sentence

Death penalty in drowning overturned by high court

September 21, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A Maryland man whose death sentence in the murder of an elderly Woodlawn woman was overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing an offer from prosecutors for a life prison term, a lawyer for the man said yesterday.

The sentence, if agreed upon, would make Kevin Wiggins, 43, who has been in prison 16 years, immediately eligible for a parole hearing, said Spencer Gordon, an assistant public defender in Baltimore County's felony trial division.

Inmates sentenced to life in prison become eligible for parole after 15 years, minus any credit for good behavior or work service. The governor must approve the parole.

Robin Coffin, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, confirmed that prosecutors offered Wiggins the life sentence but would say little else about it.

"We made this offer a long time ago. Months ago," she said. Yesterday, "they came to court and there was discussion about the offer."

Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to return to court Oct. 7 for a motions hearing. Although Coffin said there was no deadline attached to the offer, she said she hopes that Wiggins and his lawyers will have made a decision by then.

Wiggins has maintained his innocence in the September 1988 drowning death of Florence Lacs, 77, who was found dead in the bathtub of her Woodlawn apartment complex, where Wiggins found temporary work as a painter.

Although there was no physical evidence linking Wiggins to the killing and no eyewitnesses, he acknowledged that he and his girlfriend used Lacs' car and credit cards within hours of her death and pawned her ring.

After Wiggins' conviction, the public defenders representing him decided to have him sentenced by a Baltimore County jury. Rather than argue for leniency by presenting evidence of abuse Wiggins suffered in his childhood, the defense attorneys tried to convince the jury of his innocence. Jurors deliberated for a little more than six hours before sentencing him to die.

Twice, Maryland's highest court upheld Wiggins' conviction and sentence. But in September 2001, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz voided Wiggins' conviction and sentence, ruling that there was not enough evidence to convict him and that his lawyers did not adequately represent him.

Those decisions were reversed in May 2002 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In June last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, while letting Wiggins' conviction stand, threw out the death sentence. In ordering a new sentencing hearing for Wiggins, the majority wrote that jurors probably would not have chosen to put the borderline mentally retarded painter to death had they been told that he was forced to beg for food by his alcoholic mother and that he was physically and sexually abused by his foster parents.

Lacs, a retired seamstress, had been widowed about six years when she was killed. She lived alone in a one-bedroom garden apartment on Woodlawn Drive and was close with a group of women who got together regularly to play cards and socialize.

Her niece, Barbara L. Stauffer, who lives in Southern Maryland, declined to comment yesterday on the life sentence offered to Wiggins.

If Wiggins declines the offer, a judge would schedule a sentencing hearing that could stretch several weeks.

Prosecutors would call witnesses to prove that Wiggins caused Lacs' death and to lay out the aggravating circumstances that make Wiggins eligible for the death penalty, Coffin said.

Gordon, the public defender, said the defense would summon witnesses to try to prove that the abuse Wiggins suffered in childhood served as a mitigating factor in the crime.

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