The 12-member jury that convicted a Columbia woman of involuntary manslaughter in the strangulation death of a fellow clinical psychology doctoral student only briefly considered the more serious charge of first-degree murder, according to two jurors.
Juror David Kilpatrick said the group discussed for about 10 minutes the possibility of Melissa Burch Harton, 26, having the intent to kill Natasha Bacchus Magee last March before eliminating it from the list of convictions.
"It wasn't premeditated," said Kilpatrick, who believed Harton should be acquitted until the final hour of the jury's 14 1/2 -hour deliberations. "We just didn't see it, period."
Jury forewoman Nancy Harry also said in an e-mail interview that the jury had a "very strong consensus from the beginning that there was absolutely no premeditation."
Harton is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Lenore Gelfman on April 17; she faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
During the two-week Howard County Circuit Court trial that concluded Friday, the state had partially built its case around the idea that Harton had to throttle 31-year- old Magee, of Stewartstown, Pa., for at least three minutes, allowing her to have enough time to consider her actions and justify a first-degree murder verdict.
But Kilpatrick said the jury didn't believe the testimony from an assistant state medical examiner who provided that length of time to cause death by strangulation.
Instead, the panel decided to take Harton at her word when she told Howard County police that Magee attacked her in a drunken fight - the defense maintained the women drank at least 23 alcoholic drinks between them.
Harton, who did not testify, told police she fought back in self-defense after the women had gotten together for an evening of dining and drinking during a spring break from their studies at Loyola College.
"Melissa's statement got her involuntary manslaughter because she admitted she did it," Kilpatrick said. "All they had was her words versus no one's."
In the six-hour videotaped interview with police, both the defense and prosecutors agree that Harton initially repeatedly lied about what happened to Magee in the early morning of March 9, including that Magee was abducted by men outside TGI Friday's near Arundel Mills.
But about halfway through the interview, Harton told police that after she and Magee - whom she called her best friend - went drinking at a number of restaurants, they argued in Harton's car when Magee became upset after Harton said her parents didn't like Magee.
Harton said Magee started attacking her, and Harton said she pulled her car over on the side of Centennial Lane near the entrance to Centennial Park. Harton said she and Magee got out of the car and began choking each other.
"We were both on the ground," she said. "And she was choking me, and I was pushing her, and then she just, like, was really out of it."
Harton continued: "And we're, like, yelling, and just, like, I was crying hysterically. And she just, like, was talking gibberish that I couldn't understand."
An eyewitness, Robert Stone, testified that as he drove on Centennial Lane that morning, he saw Harton straddling someone on the side of the road. When he turned the car around and went back to the park, he testified he saw a woman who looked like Magee lying facedown on a pathway, pleading for help.
Stone, 37, of Columbia, said that when he approached Harton and asked what happened, she said she didn't know who Magee was. She asked him to call 911, and he drove to a nearby home and asked the owner to make the call, he testified.
But before police arrived, Harton said Magee got back into the car and she was "really out of it. ... [She] didn't seem like she could stay awake, but then she'd kind of be awake."
Mary Murphy, senior assistant state's attorney, speculated during closing arguments that Harton may have finished fatally strangling Magee in the car.
However, Harton said she told her friend while in the car: "I wasn't angry anymore at that point, and I just told her I was really scared, I was gonna call for help. But I just freaked out."
Harton said that she drove to a parking lot and that Magee opened the passenger door and fell out. Harton said she left her there.
Harton told police: "I didn't mean to make such a bad decision. I wish I could take it back ... [the decision] to not take her to the hospital. But I felt like she's already like dying and gonna be dead. And they would think I did it."
When a police officer arrived at Centennial Lane, the women were gone, but the officer found Magee's purse, containing her driver's license, on the side of the road. About 4:30 a.m., police contacted Magee's mother, who then called Magee's husband, who said his wife was with Harton, leading police to Harton's apartment in the 5600 block of Columbia Road.