Judge allows starvation trial to be moved from Cecil

Potential jurors formed opinions on case already

September 18, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

ELKTON -- For the last five years of her life, Mary Elizabeth Kilrain lived locked in a bedroom in her Cecil County home. In 1999 after suffering a brain aneurysm, family members said, she became verbally abusive, so once a day, one of her three daughters would open the door to feed or bathe her, then lock it back up.

On Feb. 25, police found her body behind the locked door, lying among decaying food and feces. She weighed 81 pounds.

Police arrested her husband, John Joseph Dougherty -- who faces second-degree murder charges -- and his live-in girlfriend, Kathleen Marie Zeman.

The incident shocked this town of 11,900, a formerly rural area that has seen growing crime as more land becomes developed. But nothing like this.

It was the "talk of the town," said Amy Braywood, 50, who has lived in Elkton all her life. From the drug stores and delis, to the shopping malls and grocery stores, few residents here haven't heard about what happened to Mary Elizabeth Kilrain.

The case has been so prominent that Circuit Judge Dexter M. Thompson Jr. said Dougherty can't get a fair trial in Cecil County. On Wednesday, he made the rare move of granting a defense motion to move the trial to another county.

Before Zeman's trial began, nearly 75 of 90 potential jurors had indicated they heard or read about the case. Many expressed opinions they'd formed from those reports, Thompson said.

"Never in the whole time I've been practicing law have I seen any case where more people knew about it," he said. "I do not feel it would be appropriate to try this case in Cecil County."

North East resident Judy Hect, 55, agreed.

"He can't get a jury that wouldn't be biased, not at this point. No way," she said.

Some have seen the story on television, surprised to see their hometown on the big-city news and horrified when they saw why. Others read about it in the local newspaper, which has splashed several stories across the front page. Others simply heard through word of mouth.

The sordid details have led many to theorize what many have happened or assess blame.

Braywood said Social Services may not have acted quickly enough. Jean Beck, 70, of Chesapeake City questions why the children and neighbors didn't act sooner.

"It's shameful and disgraceful that that would go on," she said. "It's the most horrible thing I've ever heard."

To some, it's simply a sign of the times.

"That's the way the world is now," said Dawn Spencer, 36.

Though the misdemeanor neglect charge against Zeman was thrown out last month -- Thompson cited a "poorly written" law -- a jury was culled for her trial, Cecil County state's attorney Christopher J. Eastridge said Wednesday. Eastridge's motion to have Thompson removed as the judge in the case was denied.

"In the last case, did jury selection take longer? Absolutely," Eastridge said after the hearing. "But we were able to select a jury."

The start of Dougherty's trial -- which was scheduled for Oct. 3 -- is uncertain. The administrative judge for the 2nd Circuit -- comprising Talbot, Queen Anne's, Caroline and Kent counties in addition to Cecil -- will decide this month how the trial will proceed.

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