Judge overturns 1989 conviction, death sentence
By Eric Siegel Baltimore Sun Staff
A federal judge has voided the murder conviction and death sentence of a man found guilty 12 years ago of drowning an elderly Baltimore County woman in her bathtub.
In granting a petition for federal review, U.S. District Court Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz agreed with inmate Kevin Wiggins that there was not enough evidence to convict him and that his lawyers did not adequately represent him at sentencing.
"No rational finder of fact could have found Wiggins guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt," Motz said in his opinion issued Tuesday and posted on the court Web site yesterday.
Ruling that Wiggins had already served time for robbery and theft convictions stemming from the case, Motz ordered that the 40-year-old be released from prison within 30 days unless the state appeals. The Maryland attorney general's office should decide "within the next couple of days" whether it will appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Gary E. Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division.
If it does, Wiggins' lawyer said he plans to ask Motz to release his client until a ruling is issued. "I think it's a travesty he's been on death row for 12 years," said Donald B. Verrilli Jr. of the Washington firm of Jenner & Block, which has handled Wiggins' appeals on a pro bono basis for the past 10 years.
Michelle Nethercott, one of Wiggins' two attorneys at the trial and sentencing in 1989, said she was "relieved" by the decision despite Motz' ruling that she and co-counsel Carl Schlaich had made "professional errors" in not presenting evidence of Wiggins' traumatic childhood at his sentencing. "I've been haunted by this case for the better part of 10 years," said Nethercott, an assistant state public defender. "I'm relieved that some judicial authority has agreed with what I believed all along - that there was inadequate evidence to convict him of murder."
Schlaich, now in private practice, declined to comment, as did the prosecutor in the case, S. Ann Brobst, a Baltimore County assistant state's attorney. Motz' order on the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, first filed two years ago, comes on Wiggins' third round of appeals in the case.
The state's highest court has twice denied Wiggins' appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court has twice declined to review the case. The case stemmed from the death of Florence G. Lacs, 77, who was found drowned in the bathtub of her Woodlawn apartment Sept. 17, 1988, in what the medical examiner ruled was a homicide. Wiggins, who had no fixed address and no previous criminal record, was seen near Lacs' apartment two days before the woman's body was found and the last day she was seen alive.
That night and the next day, Wiggins and his girlfriend used Lacs'
credit cards and car, and the next day pawned a ring she owned, according
to court records. Though Motz said the evidence against Wiggins "appears
compelling," he said
He found that Wiggins' lawyers failed to conduct a "reasonable investigation"
of their client's "unfortunate upbringing" that included neglect and physical
and sexual abuse through his teen years.