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Poisoning conviction overturned
Appeals court finds fault with capital murder trial of Madison woman accused in 2003 death of husband

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — A woman serving life for capital murder in the alleged poisoning death of her husband may get a new trial.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously overturned the 2003 conviction of Kathy Diane Birge, 53, of Madison in Limestone County.

The court said the prosecution failed to establish a sufficient chain of custody for samples extracted from the body of Cecil Birge, Kathy Birge's husband.

"I haven't read the opinion, but from what I've been told, it sounded like a trivial technicality," Sheriff Mike Blakely said Friday. "I was shocked it got overturned on such a technicality. That's something I would think a court in New York or California would do, but not Alabama."

The court ruled that the trial judge, former Circuit Court Judge George Craig, should not have let the prosecution enter the toxicology report as evidence. The court said Craig also should not have allowed Dr. John Pless, an Indiana pathologist, to testify about the toxicology report and give his opinion as to the cause of death.

Cecil Birge died May 5, 2001, at his Copperfield Subdivision home. Coroner Mike West ruled it a natural death.

West testified at Kathy Birge's trial that she told him her husband had been experiencing chest pains.

Kathy Birge tried to have her husband cremated, but Cecil Birge's daughter from another marriage filed an injunction and was able to bury her father in Indiana. That's where his daughter lives.

When Limestone authorities discovered Kathy Birge had forged her husband's will, they exhumed his body.

Pless performed the autopsy in Indiana and took samples to test for drugs. During the August 2003 trial, Pless testified that the amount of drugs in Cecil Birge's body equaled 25 to 30 pills.

Pless could not identify everyone who handled the toxicology samples after they were locked in a refrigerator. There also was an unsigned report from the lab where the samples were transferred.

The court ruled this showed several missing links in the chain of custody and overturned the conviction because the report was "the crux of the prosecution's case."

"We do not reverse a capital murder conviction lightly," the court's ruling stated.

The court also stated that, "Only the toxicology results established that Cecil died of a multiple-drug overdose, and that evidence allowed the jury to conclude that the (prosecution) presented sufficient proof that Birge had murdered her husband."

The court ruled that Kathy Birge's forgery plea and theft conviction stand. She received 20 years for the theft and 20 years for forgery.

Limestone District Attorney Kristi Valls said she has called the state attorney general's office and is waiting to see whether the attorney general will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

"If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, then we will certainly give her a new trial," Valls said.

She told the jury in her closing arguments that despite it being a circumstantial case, Kathy Birge's actions spoke louder than words.

The actions Valls listed to the jury included: Kathy Birge making arrangements for her husband's cremation and writing a new will the week he died; refilling her migraine prescription before his death; and calling her husband's benefits' company to make sure she, and not her stepdaughter, was getting both life insurance policies.

Online extra

Text of appeals court decision, click here.

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