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Doctor arraigned in Maryland on murder charges in abortion case

A doctor was freed on $500,000 bail Friday after a brief court hearing in Cecil County, the first time since his arrest in New Jersey last month that he publicly faced charges that five abortions he performed in Maryland were murder.

Dr. Steven Chase Brigham's appearance prompted increased security at the historic courthouse in Elkton and was added to the public docket at the last minute, a testament to the volatile debate over abortion. A judge ordered the 55-year-old not to perform abortions and to surrender his passport.

"We have received the indictment and continue to assert that Dr. Brigham has not violated any Maryland laws," said a statement from the doctor's attorney, C. Thomas Brown.

Up until Friday, the indictment charging Brigham and another doctor, Nicola Irene Riley, 46, who is being held without bail in Utah pending extradition to Maryland, had been sealed. Even his attorneys had seen the charges only in a news release from Elkton police on Dec. 28.

Riley is charged with one count each of first- and second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy. Brigham is charged with five counts each of first- and second-degree murder, among other charges. They are the first doctors in the state charged under Maryland's fetal homicide law in a case involving a medical procedure.

The doctors had come under investigation 16 months ago after authorities said they botched an abortion at an Elkton clinic. The 18-year-old mother, who was 21 weeks' pregnant, suffered a ruptured cervix and had to be taken to a hospital in Cecil County and later flown to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

In December, Elkton police confirmed in a news release that some of the charges against the doctor related to that case. But police also had searched the Elkton clinic looking for records and said they found nearly three dozen late-term fetuses in a freezer, some at 35 weeks of gestation.

The indictment made public Friday for the first time confirms that four of the murder counts filed against Brigham involve other fetuses. The documents do not describe how the medical examiner or prosecutors selected those out of the ones found in the freezer.

Court documents show only the dates that prosecutors say the fetuses were aborted, their gender and assigns each a number. The dates, all in 2010, are for July 9, July 13, July 21, July 23 and Aug. 13. The fetus from Aug. 13, the day the injured 18-year-old woman had her procedure, is the only one that gives a partial name along with a number — "Male Fetus Brewer 10-6158." The other four were female.

In each case, the indictment calls the fetus "viable."

Maryland law generally prohibits abortions when fetuses have a reasonable likelihood of sustained life outside the womb. Such abortions are allowed in cases where the mother's life or health is in danger.

Cecil County State's Attorney Edward D.E. Rollins did not comment on the case Friday. In an earlier interview, he acknowledged, "We're in uncharted territory."

It is unclear when the other defendant, Riley, will return to Maryland. She has a hearing scheduled Monday in Salt Lake County, Utah, where she has been held since Dec. 28. Her attorneys have complained that they have been unable to discuss a voluntary extradition to Maryland with prosecutors.

On Thursday, Riley's defense team filed two motions in Cecil County Circuit Court, one demanding that the indictment against their client be unsealed, and a second requesting that a judge hold the county's top prosecutor and Elkton police chief in contempt of court.

The motions argue that Rollins and police violated grand jury secrecy laws by revealing the charges and other details back in December, while the suspects were locked up in other states but before the information became public in Maryland.

In those filings, Riley's attorneys hinted that their defense could hinge on how "viability" is defined and interpreted. The documents say the defense will raise "the medical issue of 'viability' of a fetus, proximate cause of death and most importantly the express statutory immunity provided by physicians in the homicide statute."

The Maryland Board of Physicians pulled Riley's medical license last year, saying the abortion procedure performed in Elkton did not conform to acceptable medical standards. Brigham was never licensed to practice medicine in Maryland, and the board further barred him from performing any procedures.

Both doctors have had their licenses stripped or their ability to run abortion clinics taken away by several states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Utah.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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