A Maryland man whose death sentence in the murder of an elderly Woodlawn woman was overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court accepted yesterday an offer from prosecutors for a life prison term.
The sentence makes Kevin E. Wiggins, 43, who has been in prison for 16 years, eligible for a parole hearing in as few as four months, a state prisons spokesman said.
Baltimore County prosecutors quickly pointed out, however, that no inmate serving a life sentence has been paroled in the past decade and that the governor must approve the parole of any inmate sentenced to life in prison.
Wiggins was granted a new sentencing hearing after the Supreme Court ruled last year that jurors probably would not have sentenced the borderline mentally retarded painter to death had they been told of abuse he suffered as a youngster.
Given an opportunity yesterday to address Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger, Wiggins spoke slowly and haltingly.
"I came into this world as human trash, and I didn't want to go out that way," he said. "I'm 43 years old. I'm trying to understand. I mean, with this deal, I don't know if this deal is just taking my life away, too."
At Wiggins' request, Bollinger recommended that the inmate serve his time at the Patuxent Institution, an independent unit of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that focuses on offender remediation and treatment.
Wiggins has long 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 had 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.
Donald B. Verrilli Jr., a Washington lawyer who has represented Wiggins through a winding appeal process, said yesterday that the new sentence is a step in the right direction but not the legal team's goal.
"This gave Kevin a chance to have a future," he said. "Obviously, he hopes for his freedom, and we're going to continue to work to secure his freedom through the parole process."
Lacs' niece, Barbara L. Stauffer, who lives in Southern Maryland, could not be reached to comment yesterday.
Slim odds of parole
The Maryland Parole Commission hears more than 11,000 cases a year, and fewer than a third of the inmates seeking parole get it, said Mark A. Vernarelli, a spokesman with the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Instances of inmates sentenced to life in prison -- "lifers," as they are called in the criminal justice system -- winning parole are far rarer. It has been 10 years since a lifer was paroled for anything other than serious medical conditions.
Michael Stark, an organizer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, cheered the news of Wiggins' new sentence. But he also said he hopes that the practice of keeping lifers in prison for life -- started in Maryland under the Glendening administration -- will soon end.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "now finds himself saddled with 80-year-old grandmother inmates who pose absolutely no threat to anybody," Stark said. "It's certainly another hurdle for Kevin Wiggins. But I have no doubt that that policy is going to crash under the weight of its own ineffectiveness."
Wiggins will be eligible for his first parole hearing as soon as officials with the Maryland Parole Commission complete the required 120-day victim notification process, said Vernarelli, the corrections department spokesman.
Defense lawyers presented yesterday to Bollinger, the Baltimore County judge, a 45-page report on what they termed Wiggins' "social history." Filled with instances of physical and sexual abuse that defense investigators said they documented in Wiggins' childhood, the report was prepared for use at a new sentencing hearing, if Wiggins had not accepted the prosecution's offer of a life sentence.
The defense team likely will use the report to bolster Wiggins' bid to serve his sentence at the Patuxent Institution and to support Wiggins' requests for parole.
"He has had as tough a life as anybody," said Spencer Gordon, an assistant public defender and one of Wiggins' attorneys.
According to the report, Wiggins was, in the first six years of his life, "routinely subjected to starvation, physical and sexual abuse and extreme neglect."
Although the Department of Social Services removed Wiggins and his two older sisters from their alcoholic mother's care and placed them in foster care, Wiggins continued to suffer from neglect and abuse in as many as six foster homes over the ensuing decade.
To escape the mistreatment, Wiggins sometimes ran away from his foster homes and roamed homeless for weeks or months at a time, according to the report. "To survive," the court documents report, "Kevin submitted to sexual acts in exchange for food or money."
Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst said the abuse that defense attorneys say Wiggins suffered as a child did not influence her decision to abandon the pursuit of the death penalty and offer him the lesser sentence. Rather, she said, she was persuaded by the difficulty of presenting the case again to a sentencing jury 16 years after the murder and by the binding nature of the agreement reached with defense lawyers.
"There's finality for the victim's family," she said. "There are no appeals or requests for review by a three-judge panel or sentence modification. It's final."