Husband on Trial in Wife's Starving Death

Weighing just 81 pounds, Mary Elizabeth Kilrain was found dead in a sparsely furnished, filthy room that was outfitted with a doorknob locking it from the outside.

Authorities say the 46-year-old woman was starved to death by her longtime partner, John Joseph Dougherty, who took care of her after an aneurism in 1999 left her unable to work.

"It was just deplorable conditions, to say the least," said Sgt. Bernard Chiominto, a detective for the Cecil County Sheriff's Department. "Just the stench alone coming from the room. It was one of the worst ones I'd ever seen."

Dougherty faces trial Monday on charges of neglect, involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. If convicted, he could go to prison for more than 30 years.

Attorney William Riddle is expected to argue that kidney disease caused Kilrain's dangerous weight loss and that she never was deprived of food before her death in February 2005.

Riddle said Dougherty took almost two years off work to care for Kilrain after her aneurism. When the credit card bills got too high, he went back to work as a mechanic and never made enough to hire the nursing assistance she needed. Calls to the state for social services help went unanswered, Riddle said.

"He found himself in an unfortunate situation, and when he reached out for help, he was denied," Riddle said. "He did the best he could right up until the last day Ms. Kilrain died."

The case has garnered so much attention that the trial was moved 45 miles south to Centreville, where prosecutors plan to describe to jurors in specific detail the kind of filth Kilrain lived in, down to an old pancake on the floor and a cup of urine on the windowsill. Black marks on the wall show where Kilrain banged with her cane.

Family members are expected to describe Kilrain as a woman who became angry and violent, sometimes hitting her three daughters with her cane. They say the marks on the wall came from her becoming agitated after watching daytime television — not from Kilrain's attempts to get out of the room.

Free on a $350,000 bond while he awaits trial, Dougherty declined an interview through his lawyer.

"I see this as a chance for vindication, a chance to finally get the truth out there," Dougherty told the Cecil Whig newspaper of his trial.

After the aneurism, Dougherty started a relationship with a woman 20 years his junior, and 33-year-old Kathleen Zeman was living in the house with two of her own children when Kilrain died.

Zeman was charged with neglect, though those charges were later dismissed by a judge. Reached by telephone, Zeman declined an interview.

"People are not going to like that he had a girlfriend right before his wife passed away," Riddle said. Still, the lawyer says Dougherty tried his best to find help he could afford.

Riddle said Dougherty called the Cecil County Department of Social Services in December of 2004, but no one would help him. Riddle also said a neighbor called authorities after not seeing Kilrain in a year, but no one investigated.

Norris West, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said he couldn't say whether anyone from the county office checked on Kilrain because of the pending trial. Some people from the county office are expected to testify, West said.

Randy Thomas, president of The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, had not heard of the Kilrain case but said it isn't unusual for relatives to argue the stress of caring for an impaired person caused the neglect.

"The thing with children is there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually they learn to go to the bathroom, tie their shoes — they grow up. With sick adults, the situation only gets worse."

Still, Thomas said stress shouldn't excuse Kilrain's living conditions or her death.

"We don't accept stress as a rationale for abusing children, so why would we accept that with older people? Letting someone rot in a bedroom, I don't buy it," he said.

Neighbor Autumn Brown, 19, was more sympathetic, describing Dougherty as a "really nice guy."

"It's really sad what happened, but I don't know if it could've been stopped," Brown said. "I'm sure he did everything he could."