WASHINGTON — Authorities say two out-of-state doctors who traveled to Maryland to perform late-term abortions have been arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder, an unusual use of a law that allows for murder charges in the death of a viable fetus.
Dr. Steven Brigham, of Voorhees, N.J., was taken into custody Wednesday night and is being held in the Camden County jail, according to police in Elkton, Md. Authorities also arrested Dr. Nicola Riley in Salt Lake City and she is in jail in Utah. Each is awaiting an extradition hearing.
A grand jury indicted the two doctors after a 16-month investigation, police said.
The investigation began in August 2010 after what authorities say was a botched procedure at Brigham's clinic in Elkton, located near the border of Maryland and Delaware. 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.
Cecil County State's Attorney Ellis Roberts declined to elaborate on the charges or the circumstances that led to them, saying it would be inappropriate to comment before Brigham and Riley, who were taken into custody on fugitive warrants, had seen the indictments.
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," 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.
"Dr. Brigham has fully cooperated with this investigation," Brown said. "I had an agreement with the state's attorney's office that if Dr. Brigham was charged, he would voluntarily come to Maryland to surrender. For reasons unknown to me, the state did not honor that agreement. ... It is my opinion that Dr. Brigham's arrest in New Jersey was orchestrated to ensure that he remained in custody over this holiday weekend."
An attorney for Riley also took issue with her client being behind bars.
"We believe the charges are without legal merit," said attorney Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum. "We believe it's inappropriate for her to be held without bond. She is not a flight risk and she should be released on her own recognizance."
Krevor-Weisbaum said Riley's legal team would comment further after they had seen the indictment.
A spokeswoman for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group, said she was not aware of any cases in the United States in which an abortion provider had been charged with murder in the death of a fetus. A Philadelphia doctor, Kermit Gosnell, faces murder charges in the deaths of seven newborn babies but has not been charged with killing fetuses.
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. Brigham's New Jersey license was also suspended, leaving him without a valid license in any state, and authorities there are pursuing revocation of his license. New Jersey authorities have cooperated with the Maryland criminal probe, said Thomas R. Calcagni, director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs.
According to regulators, Brigham would begin abortions in New Jersey and have his patients drive themselves to Maryland to complete the procedures, taking advantage of Maryland's more permissive laws. Brigham was not authorized to perform abortions in New Jersey after the first trimester, and regulators called his actions manipulative and deceptive.
In Maryland, licensed physicians can perform abortions at any time 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 starting around 23 weeks.
Roberts declined to elaborate on how Brigham and Riley could be charged with murder in the death of a 21-week-old fetus.
Anti-abortion activists hailed the arrests of Brigham and Riley.
"These two individuals are now where they belong and should be in jail for the rest of their lives," the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said in a statement. "Even those who believe abortion should be legal can join with us to stop the out-of-control practices of people like Brigham and Riley."
Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.
Ben Nuckols can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols .