WASHINGTON – A federal judge Wednesday overturned the murder conviction and death sentence against Kevin Wiggins in the 1988 killing of a 77-year-old Baltimore County woman.
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz found that the “evidence is too thin to sustain Wiggins’ murder conviction” and that the defendant, who is borderline mentally retarded, was poorly represented by his trial attorneys, who failed to raise mitigating circumstances at his sentencing.
Motz rejected 16 other issues that Wiggins raised on appeal, including challenges to the death penalty itself.
“I think Judge Motz showed a great sense of fairness, a great sense of wisdom and a great sense of courage,” said Donald Verrilli, Wiggins’ current attorney.
The state has 30 days to appeal, but Assistant Attorney General Ann Bosse declined to comment Wednesday on the next step in the case.
The case began Sept. 17, 1988, a Saturday, when Florence Lacs was found dead in the bathtub of her Woodlawn garden apartment, where Wiggins was a painter, according to published reports at the time. Those stories said Lacs was drowned in a tub of household chemicals.
Witnesses said they saw Wiggins near Lacs’ apartment on the afternoon of Sept. 15, a Thursday, the last time she was seen alive. Testimony also showed that Wiggins and his girlfriend used Lacs’ credit cards on Thursday and Friday, pawned one of her rings on Saturday and were seen driving her car.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel convicted Wiggins’ of murder, robbery and other charges at a non-jury trial. A jury later sentenced him to death for the murder.
Hinkel said he was swayed by the fact that Wiggins was seen near Lacs’ apartment, that he lied to police about how he got her credit cards and that she was wearing a blue skirt Thursday afternoon — the same skirt she was in when her body was found.
But Motz noted that two others testified that Lacs wore a red dress on Thursday and that some experts estimated the time of death was as late as Friday night. One witness also testified that she spoke to Lacs on Friday morning — but Hinkel discounted it because the other testimony was overwhelming.
Motz disagreed. He said that “when the record is carefully analyzed, no rational finder of fact could have found Wiggins guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Motz agreed with Wiggins that his attorneys erred in the sentencing phase of his trial when they failed to present evidence that their client was sexually abused by several foster parents — including a rape at the hands of foster siblings — and by a Job Corps supervisor. He and his own siblings were often left for days without food by their mother, who punished Wiggins for playing with matches by burning him on a hot stove.
The attorneys said they did not investigate Wiggins’ history because they planned to retry his guilt or innocence before the sentencing jury and did not want to dwell on possible mitigating factors.
Motz rejected the trial attorneys’ claim that it was a “tactical decision” not to press their client’s history to the jury. He said their tactical decision was “forced on them by inattention and lack of preparation,” noting that one attorney had moved on to another job and the other, handling his first capital case, admitted to being “frankly overwhelmed.”
Motz said the attorneys had an obligation to investigate Wiggins’ history, before making a decision on whether they would use it in court.
The fact that his trial attorneys also failed to investigate the possibility that Wiggins might be mentally retarded “is but another element demonstrating that Wiggins received ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase,” Motz said. Maryland prohibits the imposition of the death penalty against mentally retarded defendants.