- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

ANNAPOLIS The Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the felony murder convictions of Rita Fisher's mother and sister for the starvation death of the 9-year-old Baltimore County girl in 1997.
The appeals court unanimously rejected claims by lawyers for Rita's mother, Mary Utley, and the girl's sister, Rose Mary Fisher, that death resulting from child abuse does not qualify as felony murder under Maryland law.
However, the appellate court sent the case back to circuit court for review of one part of Utley's sentence. She was sentenced to serve 20 years for child abuse, but the court agreed with her lawyers that 15 years was the maximum sentence she could receive under the child-abuse law at that time.
Rita died June 25, 1997, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The State Medical Examiner's Office attributed the death to a combination of malnutrition and dehydration because the girl had been denied food and water.
Examination showed Rita had been severely abused and had suffered numerous broken bones, internal bleeding and abscesses.
Rita's sister, Georgia, 15 at the time, testified at trial that she and Rita were beaten, locked in a small basement room for long periods of time and denied food and water.
She testified the abuse was carried out by her mother, Rose Mary, and Frank Scarpola, Rose Mary's live-in boyfriend.
The mother and older sister blamed Scarpola for the severe mistreatment. He, in turn, said he had tried to bring order to a disordered household and denied abusing the girls.
A jury acquitted the two women of first- and second-degree murder, but convicted them of second-degree felony murder. Utley was sentenced to 75 years in prison and Rose Mary to 30 years.
Scarpola was given a 95-year sentence for second-degree murder and child-abuse charges.
A charge of second-degree felony murder is filed when a death results from another crime, such as robbery, but there was no demonstrable intention to kill.
Lawyers for the two women argued in a hearing last year that they could not be convicted of second-degree murder based on common law because child abuse was not a crime when the first settlers brought common law to Maryland.
But in its first direct ruling on that issue, the appeals court disagreed.
The court also rejected arguments that the lower court erred in not requiring the state to provide Georgia's address so lawyers for Utley and Rose Mary could talk to her.
The appeals court ruling by Judge Lawrence Rodowsky noted that Georgia's lawyer notified the court she did not want to talk to lawyers for her mother and sister.
"Here the background facts supply ample good cause for the court's conclusion that the secure and protected environment of this child should not be invaded," the opinion said.
"Further, any violation, even if more than technical, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."

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