Starvation-death trial may move from Cecil


The Elkton man accused of starving his wife in a locked room might have received too much negative publicity to get a fair hearing at his murder trial, a Cecil County judge said yesterday.

The judge suggested the second-degree murder trial of John Joseph Dougherty be moved to a neighboring county where prospective jurors are less likely to have heard of the case. On Thursday, the judge threw out the case against Dougherty's live-in girlfriend, who faced misdemeanor neglect in the death of Mary Elizabeth Kilrain.

Dougherty is accused of locking Kilrain, his brain-damaged wife, in a bedroom for five years after she suffered an aneurysm. Kilrain, 46, weighed 81 pounds when police found her body Feb. 25 surrounded by decaying food and human waste.

Dougherty's attorney agreed with Circuit Judge Dexter M. Thompson Jr., and said yesterday that he will ask the court to move the trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 3.

The publicity surrounding Kilrain's death is "the most of any case I've seen since I've been on the bench," said Thompson, who is in his 10th year as a judge. "We have never had this before."

The judge said it is the first time he has suggested moving a trial.

In addition to murder, Dougherty, 53, an employee of an auto shop in Townsend, Del., is charged with manslaughter and abuse-neglect of a vulnerable adult. Dougherty's attorney said his client is innocent, and that Kilrain died of "natural causes." An autopsy concluded that she died of starvation and dehydration.

Police said Dougherty told them that he began keeping Kilrain in the bedroom in 1999 after she suffered an aneurysm and became verbally aggressive toward their daughters. He told authorities that he wanted to prevent her from wandering around the house.

Thompson threw out the case against Dougherty's live-in girlfriend, Kathleen Marie Zeman, 32, after three days of testimony. He said the state lacked the evidence to prove the charge against her, abuse-neglect of a vulnerable adult, which would have required that the state prove she "intentionally" denied Kilrain food and water, Thompson said.

During jury selection for Zeman's trial, nearly 75 of 90 potential jurors indicated that they had heard or read of the case, Thompson said.

Any motion to move the trial would be subject to appeal by the prosecution. Cecil County State's Attorney Christopher J. Eastridge, the prosecutor in Dougherty's case, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Dougherty's three daughters, who were ages 10, 13, and 16 at the time of their mother's death, have been returned to his Chestnut Drive home. He is living there with Zeman and her two sons, said the couple's attorney, William F. Riddle.

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