A Howard County Circuit Court judge is weighing whether a jury will be able to view a videotape of a six-hour police interview in which a Columbia woman confessed to strangling her friend and fellow Loyola College doctoral student in March.
In the taped interview at Howard County police headquarters, Melissa Burch Harton, 25, told police that she choked Natasha Bacchus after a night of drinking at a TGI Friday's near Arundel Mills and an argument in her car.
Harton's lawyers attempted yesterday to persuade Judge Lenore R. Gelfman that the confession should be suppressed during Harton's first-degree murder trial that begins Jan. 30. They argued she should have been advised of her Miranda rights before the interview began, instead of almost three hours into it.
Defense attorney Michael E. Kaminkow said police advised Harton of her rights only after she told them about a struggle with Bacchus, and that Harton was then in police custody and unable to leave.
"They did an excellent job of getting what they wanted," he said. "Whether or not what they did will pass the muster of the law is another question."
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy argued that police acted properly by pausing in their questioning of Harton once she had made an incriminating statement. She claimed that Harton was not in police custody - she was not physically restrained and was able to call her husband on her cell phone.
"Her rights were given at the only time that she actually put herself in criminal jeopardy," she said.
Gelfman is scheduled to rule on the matter Nov. 16.
In the interview, Harton told police that she and Bacchus, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa., started arguing in Harton's car in the early morning of March 9. Harton pulled over on Centennial Lane at the entrance to Centennial Park, where she and Bacchus got out of the car and started to fight.
"We were yelling and hitting each other," she said. "She choked me, and I choked her back."
Harton described choking her friend for "one time, for a length of time."
Police repeatedly asked Harton to explain the argument that led to the fight, and Harton said it was a combination of things, mentioning that Bacchus was upset after Harton said her parents didn't like her.
"We were both drunk," she said. "She was really drunk."
Harton also told police that Bacchus had told her a few months earlier that she had "sexual feelings" for her. Harton said she and Bacchus were never sexually intimate, and Harton described Bacchus as being "territorial" of her and jealous with her friendships with other women.
After the fight, Harton helped Bacchus into her vehicle and drove to the Dorsey Hall pool, in the 4600 block of Columbia Road, according to charging documents.
Harton told police she opened up the car door, Bacchus fell out and Harton left her there.
"I tried to see if she was breathing," Harton said. "But I was just so upset," she said in the interview.
A neighbor walking through the area discovered Bacchus' body about 7 a.m. on the parking lot.