Utah doctor charged with murder in late-term abortions case has troubled past

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 8:07 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Long before she was indicted for murder this week by a Maryland grand jury, Utah Dr. Nicola Riley was in trouble with the law.

In 1991, Riley was serving as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army when she was dishonorably discharged following a court martial, according to military records. Riley and two enlisted soldiers had engaged in a credit card fraud scheme that earned the officer a one-year stint in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the records show.

Fast-forward 20 years and Riley finds herself behind bars once again — this time accused of participating in illegal abortions in Maryland.

A grand jury in Cecil County, Md., has indicted Riley and Dr. Steven Brigham of Voorhees, N.J., for multiple counts of murder. Both doctors are accused of traveling to Maryland to perform late-term abortions in August 2010. They were arrested in their home states Wednesday and await extradition.

Riley's defense attorney, Daniel Goldstein, said police in Elkton, Md., never contacted him or his client during their 16-month investigation. He called the charges against the doctor "politically motivated."

"I'm sad to see the charges have been brought," Goldstein told the Deseret News Friday. "I'm confident that when we get a chance to get this before the judge, she'll be vindicated."

Authorities say a botched procedure at Brigham's clinic in Elkton, located near the border of Maryland and Delaware, was the starting point for their investigation. An 18-year-old woman who was 21 weeks pregnant had her uterus ruptured and her bowel injured, and rather than call 911, Brigham and Riley drove her to a nearby hospital, where both were uncooperative and Brigham refused to give his name, according to documents filed in a previous investigation by medical regulators.

A search of the clinic after the botched abortion revealed a freezer containing 35 late-term fetuses, including one believed to have been aborted at 36 weeks, the documents show.

Brigham, 55, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, five counts of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy. Riley, 46, faces one count each of first- and second-degree murder and one conspiracy count.

The charges relate to the botched procedure as well as other abortions performed at the Elkton clinic or fetuses found there, authorities said.

Maryland is one of 38 states that allows murder charges to be brought against someone accused of killing a viable fetus. The 2005 law has so far only been used for cases in which defendants were accused of assaulting or killing pregnant women.

"We are in uncharted territory," Cecil County State's Attorney Ellis Roberts said.

"At some point in time," he added, "you will hear our explanation" of the charges.

The state law allows for murder or manslaughter charges to be brought against a person who intends to kill or seriously injure a fetus or who wantonly disregards the safety of a fetus. It does not apply to doctors administering lawful medical care and does not impinge on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

Brigham's attorney, C. Thomas Brown, said in an emailed statement that he does not believe his client has violated any Maryland laws. He said he has not seen any charging documents or spoken with Brigham since the arrest.

The botched 2010 abortion led regulators to order Brigham to stop practicing medicine in Maryland without a license, and Riley's Maryland license was suspended.

Riley also agreed to surrender her Wyoming medical license in April 2011. State regulators said the doctor misrepresented the charges that led to her court martial and dishonorable discharge when she applied for her license in 2008.

Riley told Wyoming officials she'd served time in Leavenworth "for fraternization with an enlisted soldier and conspiracy to commit fraud by not reporting soldiers under her command who were committing credit card fraud," state records state.

"Later information revealed that Dr. Riley was in fact the leader of the credit card fraud," the records state.

Then, in August 2011, the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing fined Riley $10,000 and ordered her to write an essay "describing her unprofessional conduct and the effects it has had on her patients and her profession," according to division records.

The sanction was meted out because Riley had "provided inaccurate information regarding her criminal background when she applied for her Utah medical and controlled substance license in 2004," the records state.

Jennifer Bolton, spokeswoman for DOPL, said Riley also signed a letter agreeing not to perform any abortions in Utah while officials in Maryland were conducting their investigation.

Riley remains in the Salt Lake County Jail on the Maryland arrest warrant. Her attorney declined to say whether the doctor plans to fight extradition. Her first court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday.

Contributing:Associated Press

Email: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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