Judge faults handling of
October 16, 2001
A federal judge who voided the murder conviction and death sentence of a Maryland death row inmate ordered yesterday that the man remain in prison while the state appeals his decision but sharply criticized state lawyers for lack of "moral concern" about the case.
U.S. District Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled last month that there was not enough evidence to convict Kevin Wiggins of murdering an elderly Woodlawn woman in her bathtub in 1988 and said Wiggins' trial lawyers did not represent him adequately at sentencing. Before granting a motion yesterday by the Maryland attorney general's office that Wiggins remain in prison while the state appeals his decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Motz faulted the state for continuing to seek to have Wiggins put to death.
Saying he is not "an anti-capital punishment person," Motz questioned why death penalty supporters aren't "the ones who are most concerned in cases where something goes awry. ... Why aren't they concerned about a case such as this?"
"Why isn't this case of moral concern to the state, or don't you care?" Motz asked Assistant Attorney General Ann N. Bosse during the 45-minute hearing.
"I don't think it's fair to say we don't care," Bosse replied.
Motz then accused Bosse of being angered by his decision voiding Wiggins' murder conviction and death sentence, and coming to court "with a chip on your shoulder."
"There is a tone that is appropriate here, and frankly, I think this tone is not one that has always prevailed in this courtroom," Motz said. Bosse declined to comment after the hearing on Motz's rebuke. Sean Caine, a spokesman for the attorney general, did not return telephone messages yesterday afternoon.
In ordering that Wiggins remain in prison, Motz said he continued to believe that he reached the right decision in voiding the 40-year-old inmate's murder conviction and death penalty but acknowledged the possibility that his judgment could be reversed by the 4th Circuit.
If that happened and Wiggins was released from prison only to be jailed again, it would amount to a "cruel hoax," the judge said. Wiggins, who has been on death row since 1989, has served more than the 10-year sentence he was given for robbery in the case.
Motz said he would be willing to consider a request by Wiggins that he be taken off death row but remain elsewhere in the state prison system while the 4th Circuit decides on the state's appeal.
Donald B. Verrilli Jr., Wiggins' appellate lawyer, said he will decide whether to make such a request after meeting with his client this week.
The case stemmed from the death of Florence G. Lacs, who was found drowned in the bathtub of her Woodlawn apartment in September 1988 in what was ruled a homicide.
Wiggins, who had no previous criminal record, was working as a painter near Lacs' apartment the last day she was seen alive. That night, he and his girlfriend used her car and credit cards.
Wiggins' fingerprints were not found in Lacs' ransacked apartment. Unidentified prints were found, and Motz suggested that one of both of Wiggins' girlfriend's brothers might have had a role in the crime. Motz also faulted Wiggins' trial lawyers for not thoroughly investigating Wiggins' background and presenting evidence of his limited mental ability and childhood physical and mental abuse as a mitigating factor at his sentencing.
During yesterday's hearing, Bosse said the state felt it would prevail on its appeal of Motz's ruling voiding Wiggins' murder conviction and death sentence.
"With all due respect to your honor, we think we do have a good case," she said.
The 4th Circuit probably will rule on the appeal by April, she said. In arguing for Wiggins' release pending the appeal, Verrilli said that the issue wasn't a matter of a legal technicality but "a situation where the court has concluded there isn't sufficient evidence" for murder.