Maryland prosecutors on Tuesday dismissed murder charges against two out-of-state abortion doctors, citing conflicts in expert testimony.
Cecil County State's Attorney Ellis Rollins announced the dismissal of all charges against Drs. Steven Brigham, 55, of Voorhees, N.J., and Nicola Riley, 46, of Salt Lake City, Utah.
They were charged under a Maryland law that allows prosecutors to pursue murder charges in the death of a viable fetus. The 2005 law had only been used for cases in which defendants were accused of assaulting or killing pregnant women, not to prosecute abortion doctors.
Brigham was charged with five counts each of first- and second-degree murder related to five abortions in 2010. He was also charged with conspiring with Riley to kill one of those fetuses. Riley was charged with murder and conspiracy in an abortion. Prosecutors did not detail how they determined the viability of the five fetuses.
In a statement, Rollins said the Elkton police department's investigation showed that "the demise of five viable fetuses" occurred in Elkton, but conflicts in expert testimony would keep the state from successfully prosecuting the cases. The investigation remains open, he said. Rollins did not immediately return messages seeking further comment.
Rollins subjected the doctors to legal jeopardy based on a "far-fetched" interpretation of the law, Riley's attorneys, Stuart Simms and Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum said in a statement. They also noted that the dismissal came a week before a hearing on a motion to dismiss the charges and denied their client of the chance to hear the court tell her she did not commit a crime.
"Tonight Dr. Riley and her family have the joy of knowing that her liberty is no longer in jeopardy, but that joy is tempered by the knowledge that her reputation and livelihood have been permanently and wrongly damaged by an ill-considered prosecution," the attorneys said.
In Maryland, licensed physicians can perform abortions before the fetus is deemed capable of surviving outside the womb, and abortions of viable fetuses are permitted to protect the life or health of the mother or if the fetus has serious genetic abnormalities.
Doctors generally consider fetuses to be viable outside the womb starting around 23 weeks. Viability should be left to doctors familiar with all the peculiarities of a case, said Nancy Forster, an attorney for Brigham. Her client had been under a lot of stress in recent months and was thrilled by the news, she said.
"One of the biggest concerns is that this would have a chilling effect on those who need and want and are entitled to abortions," Forster said.
The investigation began in 2010 after what authorities called a botched procedure at Brigham's Elkton clinic, in which an 18-year-old woman who was 21 weeks pregnant suffered a ruptured uterus and an injured bowel, according to documents filed in a previous investigation by medical regulators. Investigators found 35 late-term fetuses in a freezer in a subsequent search of the clinic, the documents show.
In response to the incident, state health officials also drafted new regulations for clinics where surgical abortions are performed.
Brigham lost his New Jersey medical license in 2010 after regulators discovered an arrangement under which he would begin second- and third-trimester abortions in New Jersey, and then have the patients drive themselves to Maryland the next day to complete the procedures. Authorities described the arrangement as an effort to take advantage of Maryland's more permissive abortion laws. Brigham was not licensed to perform abortions after the first trimester in New Jersey.
Brigham was ordered to stop practicing without a license in Maryland and the state suspended the licenses of Riley and another doctor who worked for Brigham.
The dismissal was first reported by the Cecil Whig newspaper.