S. Jersey abortion doc arrested on Maryland murder charges

Steven Brigham, 55, the New Jersey-based abortion provider who has been in trouble for much of his two-decade medical career, has been charged by Maryland with murdering viable fetuses found at his secret Elkton, Md., clinic in August 2010, authorities said.

Brigham, of Voorhees, was arrested by Camden County police Wednesday and is in the county jail, police said Friday.

A codefendant, physician Nicola Riley, 46, was arrested in her hometown of Salt Lake City and is in jail there. Both are awaiting extradition hearings, police said.

Maryland is one of 38 states with a law recognizing fetuses that could have survived outside the womb as murder victims, but the 2005 statute has been used only in cases in which a pregnant woman was murdered or assaulted.

Thomas Brown, an Elkton lawyer representing Brigham, said he had not seen the charging document. He said Maryland authorities reneged on an agreement to let Brigham voluntarily surrender.

"It is my opinion that Dr. Brigham's arrest . . . was orchestrated to ensure that he remained in custody over this holiday weekend," Brown wrote in an e-mail.

Riley's lawyer, Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum of Baltimore, said, "We have not seen any paperwork. We think it's inappropriate for her to be held. . . . She's not a flight risk."

A Cecil County, Md., grand jury spent 16 months investigating the doctors. Cecil County prosecutors did not return calls seeking comment, and Elkton police offered no information beyond a brief news release.

Brigham's arrest was applauded by those on both sides of the abortion debate.

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, based in Staten Island, N.Y., said in a news release, "These two individuals are now where they belong and should be in jail for the rest of their lives."

Elizabeth Barnes, director of the Cherry Hill Women's Center, said, "I am glad that a predator is off the street."

She added: "I hope the public understands that Steve Brigham is an anomaly and that most abortion care is of high quality."

Barnes is among numerous abortion providers who have filed complaints with regulators about Brigham and his Voorhees-based company, American Women's Services (AWS), which has clinics in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Florida.

In a June 2009 letter to New Jersey's medical licensing board, Barnes detailed her suspicions that Brigham was starting third-trimester abortions in Voorhees and finishing them in a clandestine clinic.

New Jersey regulators took no action, even though in the mid-1990s they tried to take Brigham's license for a bistate abortion scheme.

Hearing records in that case show he performed pre-surgical steps - including giving the fetus a lethal injection - in Voorhees, then removed the fetus in a New York clinic. The tactic was designed to evade New Jersey's strict safety standards for clinics performing late-term abortions, which are medically risky.

While New York suspended Brigham's medical license, citing a botched bistate abortion, New Jersey ultimately reinstated his license.

In October 2010, two months after the raid at the Elkton clinic, New Jersey regulators suspended that license - making it the fifth and last state to take away his medical privileges.

Brigham was never licensed in Maryland, but he routinely performed abortions in Elkton, as he admitted to New Jersey regulators at his October 2010 hearing. His claim that Maryland law allowed him to serve as an unlicensed "consultant" to the clinic "medical director" - an 88-year-old disabled doctor hired by Brigham - was rejected by regulators in both states.

During the Elkton raid, on Aug. 17, 2010, police found 35 late-term fetuses in a freezer, several just a few weeks shy of full term.

The search was prompted by the complaint of an 18-year-old New Jersey woman who had been critically injured four days earlier during an abortion performed by Riley. The patient had to be airlifted to a Baltimore hospital for emergency surgery.

Brigham is charged with five counts each of first- and second-degree murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.

Riley faces one first-degree count, one second-degree count, and a conspiracy charge.

Maryland's fetal-homicide law was first used in 2008, when a man was found guilty in the shooting deaths of his pregnant girlfriend and their 7-month-old fetus.

The law specifies that it does not apply to, or infringe upon, "a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy." It also does not subject a physician "to liability for fetal death that occurs in the course of administering lawful medical care."

The word lawful may be critical, since Brigham was not licensed.

Riley's lawyers say the law is being misapplied. "We don't think that there is any basis for these charges," Krevor-Weisbaum said.

With the arrest of Brigham, the Philadelphia area has two abortion providers accused of murder. West Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, 70, is now in jail on charges of murdering newborns and one patient.

In contrast to Maryland prosecutors, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office announced charges against Gosnell and eight of his employees at a news conference. Reporters received a 260-page grand jury presentment, with evidence and fetal photos.

 


Contact staff writer Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.