In a child abuse case that shocked Baltimore County and raised questions about social workers' oversight, Maryland's top court will hear additional arguments this week to determine whether two women were properly convicted of second-degree murder in the starvation of 9-year-old Rita Fisher.
Mary E. Utley, the girl's mother, and Rose Mary Fisher, the girl's sister, were convicted in the June 1997 death of Rita, who succumbed to dehydration and malnutrition, according to the state medical examiner. But their lawyers contend child abuse should not have resulted in a second-degree murder conviction.
"Certainly, if you kill a child and you do it through your actions, you can be convicted," said Thomas J. Saunders, Fisher's attorney. "The issue of felony murder is a separate thing."
The Maryland Court of Appeals first heard oral arguments in April and will hear more arguments tomorrow to address additional questions in the case, mainly about the effectiveness of the child abuse statute and whether second-degree murder was an appropriate charge under state law.
The two women were convicted along with Frank E. Scarpola Jr., Fisher's boyfriend, in Baltimore County Circuit Court in April 1998. Utley was sentenced to 75 years in prison, Fisher to 30 years and Scarpola to 95 years. In September 1998, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction. Scarpola did not file any further appeal.
Rita lived in Pikesville with Utley, Fisher, Scarpola and her other sister, Georgia Fisher, who was 15 at the time of the third-grader's death.
The women's lawyers argue that child abuse is not "inherently dangerous" to life and does not qualify as a felony, according to court records.
"You can't create a law after the fact," Saunders said. "The issue is, simply, did the law exist at the time to make this conviction?"
Michael R. Braudes, Utley's attorney, asserts the child abuse statute already allows for a 20-year sentence if the abuse results in death, and that it is unnecessary to follow it with a second-degree murder conviction.
The state maintains that a person can be convicted and sentenced to 20 years for child abuse that results in death, under the child abuse statute, and to another 30 years for second-degree felony murder, said Kathy Graeff, deputy chief of the criminal appeals division.
"This statute is a sentencing enhancement," she said. "It doesn't create a separate offense."
The brutality of the crime stunned the Baltimore County community.
At the time of her death, Rita weighed 47 pounds, about half of the average weight for girls her age. She had abrasions and bruises on her head, chest and buttocks, multiple rib fractures and ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, indicating she had recently been bound, according to court records.
Georgia Fisher, the prosecution's key witness, testified that the night before Rita's death, Scarpola had punished Rita for touching a wound by tying her to a dresser with shoelaces, taping her mouth shut and leaving her there all night, according to court records.
The case raised concerns about the Department of Social Services' role in protecting children from abusive homes. After Rita's death, Camille B. Wheeler, the county's social services director, was forced to resign by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, in a move that some said was a response to the department's handling of the Fisher case. In addition, new guidelines of handling child abuse complaints were issued in the department.