By Jean Cole
— Editor's note: This story is the second in a series of stories about the 2001 death of Cecil Birge in Limestone County and the capital murder case and sentencing that followed. The background in this story is based on News Courier coverage of Kathy Birge's 2003 trial by former reporter Rebekah Davis.
Cecil Birge was found dead in his Limestone County home on May 5, 2001.
Two years later, his wife Kathy was on trial for capital murder, forgery and theft in connection with his death.
On day one of the trial, Kathy pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a forged instrument for changing the beneficiary of Cecil’s will, and forging his name to it in the days before his death. Meanwhile, her defense attorney, Patrick Hill, told jurors that Cecil’s grief over the death of his son Phillip in a car accident two years earlier had prompted him to take nearly 30 prescription drugs on the day of his death. Hill said Cecil was in poor health, he was drinking and taking prescription drugs and overdosed. Hill also questioned whether the chain of evidence had been maintained with samples from the autopsy. This issue would come back to haunt the prosecution.
Prosecutor Kristi Valls, then the Limestone County district attorney, had another explanation for Cecil‘s untimely death - Kathy fatally drugged her husband for financial gain.
Valls called to the stand, among others, renowned forensic pathologist Dr. John Pless who testified that no disease contributed to Cecil’s death. Rather, a lethal dose of drugs had killed him. Pless said the drugs were most likely placed in Cecil’s food.
On day two of the trial, two witnesses offered testimony so explosive it would be Kathy‘s undoing.
Kristie Thompson, who met Kathy through their diet clinic, told jurors that two days after she and Kathy met, Kathy told her she hated Cecil. She said Kathy repeatedly told her she wanted to harm or kill her husband, and even offered to pay her to help. Thompson, an admitted former drug addict and professional shoplifter, admitted she had even told Kathy about a Vietnam War veteran turned professional hit man who might be able to do the job. Thompson said Kathy had other plans - to spike Cecil’s coffee with some kind of sleeping pill and then fatally overdose him from there.
Thompson said she starting worrying about the plotting and told Cecil to “be careful.”
The defense pounced on Thompson’s testimony, saying Thompson only came forward with the allegation after Kathy accused her of stealing a ring. Thompson said that two weeks before Cecil’s death, while authorities were questioning her about the ring theft, she told them of Kathy’s talk of killing her husband.
Foaming at the mouth
Even more shocking testimony came from Patricia Grimes, who was working at the Birges’ diet clinic when Cecil died.
Grimes told jurors she overheard part of a telephone conversation between Kathy and someone else while at the clinic.
“She said she watched him lie there for 20 minutes with foam in his mouth, and then she went shopping and bought herself a Mother’s Day present from Cecil,” Grimes testified.
Later the same day, Grimes said she overheard another of Kathy’s telephone conversations.
“She said no one would come between her and her money,” Grimes testified.
The same day, Grimes said Kathy showed her a will with Cecil’s signature taped onto the document and asked her to sign as a witness. She did so and made a copy of the document for Kathy. Grimes testified that although she knew signing was a crime, she planned to tell authorities and did so on May 22 - two days after Cecil’s body had been exhumed.
In the weeks that followed Cecil’s death, an investigator searched computers found in the Birges' home and business. He discovered that in the days before Cecil's death, someone had searched for information on arsenic poisoning, venomous spiders and do-it-yourself will kits.
See Thursday’s edition of The News Courier for the third and final part of this series.