Only civilian who testified to grand jury on killing is in jail

Columbia woman was indicted in death of doctoral student

June 24, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

A jailed Baltimore County man once known as Howard County's "most-wanted" fugitive was the only civilian to testify before the grand jury in an April indictment of a Columbia woman accused of strangling her friend and fellow Loyola College doctoral student.

Prosecutors and police would not comment on whether Robert William Stone's testimony helped them persuade the citizen panel to move forward with a jury trial and to raise the charges against Melissa Burch Harton, 25, from second-degree to first-degree murder, which requires proof of premeditation.

Harton confessed to hitting and choking Natasha Bacchus, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa., during an argument in the early hours of March 9 after a day of shopping, dinner and drinking at area bars, according to court records.

A police news release written that day said that a citizen found Bacchus' body on the parking lot of the Dorsey Hall community pool and notified authorities about 7 a.m. One of Stone's relatives, who requested anonymity, said that Robert Stone called police.

Police would not reveal whether Stone, of the 700 block of Wilton Farm Drive in Catonsville, witnessed Bacchus' death or confirm he was the caller. Grand jury records are sealed.

It is unlikely that the grand jury, which hears questions and statements only from prosecutors, was told of Stone's background, an expert said.

"I really doubt it," said Jack King of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington. "I've never heard of a state's or U.S. attorney telling a grand jury, `By the way, this information is coming from someone convicted of drug dealing, arms trafficking and murder.' That kind of stuff comes out at trial."

Maryland District and Circuit court criminal records show no outstanding charges pending against Stone at the time he called police, a fact that should help prosecutors, King said.

It is also common for police to use informants with criminal backgrounds to help them entrap suspects. Last year, a man with a criminal background helped county police arrest a couple as they transferred the frozen remains of a Baltimore woman killed in Ellicott City.

Despite his help, the state did not call him to testify at the trials of the couple. Both were convicted of second-degree murder.

"Someone who is critical to the arrest or the discovery of a crime may not be critical to proving who did it," said T. Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office.

In the Harton case, Stone's involvement is coincidental, and it is unclear whether prosecutors will need his testimony during the trial, scheduled for Sept. 26.

If Stone does testify, King said, Harton's defense attorney, Michael Kaminkow of Baltimore, would use each one of Stone's convictions to impeach his credibility. The judge also would instruct jury members to consider his testimony "with great care," King said.

Since the late 1980s, Stone, 36, has been convicted of stealing cars, resisting arrest multiple times, breaking into houses, burglarizing a Columbia restaurant and possessing a stun gun. Police also have suspected him of numerous other burglaries.

He is being held at a state prison in Jessup on second-degree assault charges that he spit on and then punched, kicked and choked his girlfriend in early April, court records show.

"Cases have been torpedoed because the state's chief witness ends up looking worse than the defendant by the time the defense attorney is through cross-examining him," King said.

Harton and Bacchus were partners on every project during master's and doctoral studies in psychology at Loyola, said Bacchus' husband, John Magee.

Harton, who also is married, has no criminal record.

A toy fund in Bacchus' honor has been established at St. Vincent's Center in Baltimore County, where she interned and counseled emotionally troubled children.

Sun staff writer Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.

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