WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the appeal of a Maryland man on death row for the 1988 murder of an elderly woman in her Woodlawn apartment.
Kevin Wiggins had contested his conviction for the 1988 murder of Florence Lacs, challenging effectiveness of the lawyers who originally defended him. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to review the effectiveness of Wiggins’ counsel after a 1999 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling.
The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider the case, but only on the question of whether Wiggins’ lawyers failed to represent him effectively. The court declined to consider Wiggins’ claim that there was insufficient evidence to try him for murder.
Wiggins became the prime suspect in the murder when he and his girlfriend Geraldine Armstrong were arrested Sept. 21, 1988, driving the victim’s car. Lacs was last seen Sept. 15 and her body was found two days later, floating on its side in a bathtub full of cloudy, greenish water.
Lacs’ apartment had been ransacked, but there was no sign of forced entry. Fingerprints found in the apartment did not match Wiggins’ prints.
But Wiggins had been working for a contractor at the Clark Manor Apartments on the days surrounding Lacs’ disappearance, and his employer testified that Wiggins was familiar with Lacs and knew that the orange Chevette he was later arrested in was hers.
Wiggins and Armstrong had been driving Lacs’ car and using her credit card since the day she was last seen.
But in the trial that followed Wiggins’ arrest, a forensic pathologist who testified for the defense gave an estimated time and manner of death that differed from the state medical examiner’s report.
The trial judge also found testimony of two inmates against Wiggins to be unbelievable.
Wiggins’ lawyers declined to investigate his social and psychological history in preparation for the trial, a decision that defense attorney Carl Schliach said was tactical. According to court records, the defense attorney was pinning his case on establishing “reasonable doubt” as to whether Wiggins could be placed at the scene of the murder.
The 4th Circuit Court asserted that defense attorneys made an informed decision when they decided not to pursue a defense based on Wiggins’ low IQ and history of physical and sexual abuse.
But the petition filed with the Supreme Court argues that such critical details were absent from the social service documents available to the defense counsel and could only have been found through investigation. It cites a district court conclusion to the same effect.
The appeal’s core argument is that the 4th Circuit does not keep the same standards as other circuits in protecting due process rights. The brief went on to call the circuit court decision “intolerable” on a matter “as fundamental as the right to the effective assistance of counsel at capital sentencing.”
Wiggins’ lawyer, Donald Verilli, declined to comment on the case Monday. Officials in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office said only that they were preparing briefs in response to Monday’s decision by the high court.