Appeal could delay trial

The Baltimore Sun

In a protest that would significantly delay a long-anticipated trial, federal prosecutors in Baltimore are appealing a judge's order this week that restricted how much information a jury can hear about the checkered past of Nancy J. Siegel, a Maryland woman accused of killing her paramour more than a decade ago and dumping his body in rural Virginia.

At issue is the length and scope of the criminal indictment lodged against Siegel in U.S. District Court in Maryland, a document originally filed almost four years ago. She is charged with witness tampering, fraud and theft. Prosecutors said Siegel is responsible for the violent death of her boyfriend and the illegal cashing of his Social Security checks for years afterward.

"Simply put, the government will establish that Ms. Siegel has stolen and exploited the identities of numerous individuals since the mid-1980s as part of an ongoing scheme through which she has obtained the majority of her income," assistant U.S. attorneys Tamera L. Fine and Christine Manuelian wrote in court papers this month. "Nobody was immune: husbands, boyfriends, children, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, complete strangers."

The trial was set to begin Tuesday and was expected to last more than a month. But Judge Andre M. Davis ruled this week that prosecutors could not tell jurors about other accusations made against Siegel, including allegations that she stole money from her previous husbands and friends. The Maryland U.S. attorney's office filed court papers yesterday saying it needed to appeal that decision before the trial could begin.

Prosecutors insist that information is critical to counter Siegel's defense that she did not kill 76-year-old Jack Watkins, but in a unstable frenzy, only disposed of his body after his death.

While authorities said they have strong circumstantial evidence against Siegel - for example, they say it was her daughter's trunk that held Watkins' body - prosecutors have less evidence directly linking her to the killing, an act that she has consistently denied.

"Defendant has claimed that she took care of Mr. Watkins - implying that she could not have taken advantage of him," Fine and Manuelian wrote. "Again the fraud scheme is illuminating. Ms. Siegel defrauded all three of her husbands, both of her daughters and her friends - in exactly the same way."

Now the trial is likely to be delayed as long as a year, said Siegel's attorney Thomas J. Saunders.

"I thought the judge was right. We'll have to see what the 4th Circuit says," Saunders said yesterday, referring to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which will review the appeal.

The defense attorney added that "it always concerns everyone that you drag this kind of case out," but he added that the delay was not "the worst situation I've seen."

Part of the delay early on in the case came when the Department of Justice took months to decide whether to pursue the death penalty against Siegel. They decided against it, but the review process postponed the trial.

According to prosecutors, Watkins was a widower from Reisterstown who fell in love with Siegel, a much younger woman. But when he disappeared more than a decade ago, few people noticed.

About the same time, in May 1996, authorities in Northern Virginia were trying to identify a 111-pound man who had been found drugged and strangled. The body had been packed into a black steamer trunk and left beside a trash can near the Appalachian Trail. For seven years, no one claimed him.

Loudoun County, Va., detectives finally made a match in 2003, and the body was identified as Watkins.

Incredibly, prosecutors say, the suspect hadn't gotten far: Siegel was still in Maryland, cashing Watkins' Social Security checks.

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