Woman admits killing on tape

Circuit judge rules jury will see most of 6-hour, county police videotape in strangulation case

November 18, 2005|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

During a videotaped, six-hour interview with police detectives, a Columbia woman confessed to strangling her friend and fellow Loyola College doctoral student in March after a night of drinking and an argument in her car.

Melissa Burch Harton, 25, told police that after she and Natasha Bacchus argued about how Harton's parents didn't like Bacchus, they started hitting each other and then Harton choked her friend for "one time, for a length of time."

A Howard County Circuit Court jury will be able to view most of that black-and-white videotape, a judge ruled Wednesday, likely strengthening the state's first-degree murder case against Harton, of the 5600 block of Columbia Road, who is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 30.

Defense attorneys tried to suppress the taped interview, arguing that Harton should have been advised of her Miranda rights before the interview began at Howard County police headquarters, instead of almost three hours into it.

But Judge Lenore R. Gelfman agreed with prosecutors that Harton was not in police custody when the interview began - she was not told that she was under arrest, she was allowed to use her cell phone and she was not locked in the interview room.

Gelfman said that once Harton implicated herself in the crime by telling a police detective that she and Bacchus got into a fight, she was advised of her Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. She then "knowingly, intelligently" waived those rights, Gelfman said.

Harton's attorneys had argued that Harton had been up all night before police interviewed her, and she did not understand what police were doing when they advised her of her rights. But Gelfman repeatedly pointed out that Harton was a coherent, 25-year-old doctoral candidate when she waived her rights.

"Police did not threaten or make promises to induce the defendant to confess," Gelfman said.

During the interview, Harton told police an array of stories - that Bacchus was abducted by a group of men outside TGI Friday's near Arundel Mills; that Harton dropped off Bacchus to meet a man named Sam and had not seen her since; that Sam and Bacchus got into a fight in Harton's car while she was driving; that Harton helped Sam dump Bacchus' body.

Harton confessed to choking Bacchus about halfway through the interview after a police detective began pressuring her to tell the truth. During that conversation, Harton told the detective, "You'll put me in jail for killing her" and, "I'm not a very good liar, huh?"

The detective soon advised Harton of her rights. Gelfman ruled that Harton was in custody once the detective started questioning her in an accusatory tone.

The judge suppressed part of the videotape that covers 18 double-spaced, typed pages of a 290-page transcript from when the accusatory questioning began to Harton waiving her rights.

After Harton waived her rights, she told police that she and Bacchus, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa., started arguing in Harton's car early on March 9 after a night of drinking at TGI Friday's. 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 and choke each other.

After the fight, Harton helped Bacchus into her vehicle and drove to the Dorsey Hall pool, in the 4600 block of Columbia Road, charging documents state.

Harton told police she opened up the car door, Bacchus fell out and Harton left her there.

A neighbor walking through the area discovered Bacchus' body about 7 a.m. on the parking lot.

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."

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

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