A Howard County Circuit Court judge sentenced a 26-year-old Columbia woman yesterday to 10 years in prison - the maximum allowed by law - for involuntary manslaughter in the death of her friend and fellow Loyola College doctoral student.
Melissa Burch Harton was convicted Feb. 10 in the strangulation of 31-year-old Natasha Bacchus Magee of Stewartstown, Pa. She will be eligible for parole in about 18 months.
Her attorney, Michael Kaminkow, said that he will ask a three-judge panel to reduce the sentence.
Reading from a statement written on yellow legal paper, Harton sobbed as she explained that she already shoulders the burden of "a life sentence." Harton choked Magee outside Centennial Park, dumped her body elsewhere and then lied several times to police about it.
Harton's attorneys argued during trial that she acted in self-defense, and claimed the two women had at least 23 alcoholic drinks between them.
Yesterday, however, Harton could not explain her actions.
"What kind of person does something like that?" she said. She concluded her testimony with, "I left. I lied. These are actions whose consequences will never leave me. `I'm sorry' won't ever be enough. But I'm so sorry."
Before announcing the sentence, Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman said that she "couldn't get over" that Harton told Robert Stone, a witness to the fight between the two women who was driving on Centennial Lane early on the morning of March 9 last year, that she didn't know Magee and sent him to get help. But before he or police could return, Harton put Magee's body in her car and dumped it in the parking lot of the Dorsey Hall community pool in Ellicott City.
Gelfman said that Harton's "unusually wild stories" to police, including that a man named Sam had tried to abduct them, "exhibited deceit and cunning," adding that her actions exhibited no concern for her dead or dying friend and only her desire to avoid "trouble."
Kaminkow said that Gelfman "came down pretty hard. I feel that she personally saw this case as more than involuntary manslaughter. Her comments from the bench suggest that."
A 12-member jury acquitted Harton of a more serious first-degree murder charge. Because the charge was involuntary manslaughter, Harton will become eligible for parole at the completion of one-quarter of her sentence. She has been in jail since May - time that will be credited to her sentence.
Kaminkow pointed out that a court-appointed psychologist concluded that the judge should not give Harton "a substantial period of incarceration." Kaminkow called a half-dozen witnesses yesterday to testify on Harton's behalf. Most of them argued that Harton had more to offer society out of prison than in it, and that her story could teach children the dangers of "binge drinking."
Harton and Magee were working on their doctorates in clinical psychology at Loyola.
In a statement read by Magee's brother-in-law, Charles Magee, her father, Shamin Bacchus, said that Harton "intentionally, maliciously, viciously and cruelly murdered my beautiful and loving daughter" in an "uncontrollable rage." He said that he wished that Gelfman had imposed "life in prison without parole."
That penalty was not possible given the jury's verdict.