Two doctors charged with murder under Md. fetal homicide law

Two doctors who Maryland authorities say botched an abortion last year in Elkton have been indicted on murder charges — in what appears to be the first use of the state’s fetal homicide law involving a medical professional performing surgery.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Cecil County State’s Attorney Edward D.E. Rollins said Friday. He declined to comment further because the indictment will remain sealed until the suspects are arraigned in Maryland. They were arrested Wednesday in New Jersey and in Utah.

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Steven Chase Brigham, 55, of Voorhees, N.J., faces five counts of first-degree murder, five counts of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. Nicola Irene Riley, 46, of Salt Lake City faces one count each of first- and second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Authorities would not describe the indictment in detail. A statement from Elkton police says some of the charges relate to the abortion that went awry 16 months ago. Detectives investigating that case — in which a teenager was rushed to a hospital and survived — said they found almost three dozen late-term aborted fetuses in a freezer at the doctors’ Elkton clinic.

Maryland is one of 38 states with a fetal homicide law. But unlike many, Maryland does not define when it is too late to perform an abortion. The law, enacted in 2005, says it’s illegal to abort a fetus deemed viable or showing signs of healthy development.

Prosecutors in Maryland have used the law several times, mostly in cases involving the shootings or beatings of pregnant women.

The Elkton case prompted the Maryland General Assembly to debate whether stricter regulation of abortion clinics is needed, and state health officials are in the process of drafting new guidelines to exert greater control over doctors who perform abortions.

An antiabortion group said the charges in Cecil County prove that Maryland’s liberal abortion laws are incapable of regulating the practice and need to be overhauled to prevent similar problems. A group that represents abortion clinics nationwide called the Elkton suspects “outliers” and said the charges show that the laws are adequate to handle cases outside acceptable medical standards.

Attorneys for the suspects say the charges as unwarranted. The two doctors are being held in their respective states pending extradition to Maryland.

“We believe the charges are without legal merit,” said Riley’s Baltimore attorney, Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum.

Brigham’s attorney, C. Thomas Brown of Elkton, issued a statement saying his client has “fully cooperated with this investigation” and that there was an agreement with the state’s attorneys office for Brigham to surrender. Rollins denied that he had made a deal for Brigham to surrender.

The Elkton case broke in August 2010 when an 18-year-old from New Jersey suffered a ruptured uterus and other internal injuries during a procedure at the American Woman’s Services clinic on East High Street.

The Maryland Board of Physicians found that the woman, who was 21 weeks pregnant, had initially been treated in Voorhees, N.J., where her cervix was dilated. The woman was then told to travel in her car to Elkton, a distance of about 60 miles, so doctors could complete the procedure.

After the woman’s uterus ruptured, Riley put her in Brigham’s rented car and drove her to Union Hospital in Elkton, officials said The woman was flown that day to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for further treatment.

Maryland’s abortion law, which is less restrictive than in nearby states, may explain why the procedure was initiated elsewhere and completed in Elkton. Other states require that later abortions be performed at a surgical center or hospital rather than at a doctor’s office. In New Jersey, pregnancies after 14 weeks cannot be ended at a doctor’s office.

Elkton police said they searched the clinic on East High Street but could not located medical records for the woman. But police said they found 35 later-term fetuses, about 20 to 35 weeks old, in a freezer.

Maryland authorities suspended Riley’s medical license in September 2010. Brigham, who did not have a Maryland license, was barred from practicing in the state. Both doctors had previously lost their licenses to practice medicine or run clinics in several states, including New York and Pennsylvania.

State authorities said Brigham ran clinics in several states, including Pennsylvania and New York. His Maryland clinics were in Elkton, Baltimore, College Park, Frederick and Cheverly.

Sun reporter Meredith Cohn and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

 
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