Manslaughter conviction overturned

September 28, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

The Court of Special Appeals has overturned the conviction of a Columbia woman in the choking death of a fellow Loyola College doctoral student in 2005, ruling that Howard County detectives waited until she made incriminating statements to advise her of her Miranda rights.

Unless Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler decides to appeal the ruling to the state's highest court, prosecutors will either reach a plea agreement and lower Melissa Burch Harton's sentence or retry her on the charge of involuntary manslaughter.

In April 2006, Howard County Circuit Court Judge Lenore Gelfman sentenced Harton, 27, to the maximum 10 years in prison in the death of Natasha Bacchus Magee, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa.

If prosecutors proceed with a new trial, they might have to do so without recordings from detectives' approximately three-hour interrogation and Harton's key confession on the morning of Magee's death.

Howard County State's Attorney Timothy McCrone said prosecutors are preparing for a new trial and have not decided whether to reintroduce statements Harton made during the interrogation.

Harton's attorney, Michael Kaminkow, said that he expects to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Should prosecutors retry the case, the appellate court has instructed the trial court to consider whether Howard County detectives deliberately attempted to circumvent the Miranda warning -- the familiar phrase that begins with "you have a right to remain silent" and advises suspects of their right to an attorney.

According to the Court of Special Appeals decision, Detective Todd McGill asked Harton whether she assaulted Magee -- the turning point in the interrogation -- about 40 minutes before Detective Vickie Shaffer read Harton the Miranda warning. Harton replied "no" to McGill's question.

The appeals court ruled that Harton was "in custody" from that moment and should have been advised of her Miranda rights.

Instead, detectives allowed Harton to make several incriminating statements.

Harton asked, "Can I go to jail for accessory to murder?"

Twelve minutes later, she said, "A crime did occur, and I'm going to jail for accessory to murder." Three minutes after that, she again stated she was going to jail and then 17 minutes later said, "Just put me in jail."

One minute later, Harton admitted that the two friends and research partners had gotten into a fight and gave an explanation of the events that led to Magee's death.

During that explanation -- and after Harton admitted physically assaulting Magee -- Shaffer read her the Miranda warning.

In the opinion, Judge James A. Kenney III referred to a U.S. Supreme Court case in which police in Missouri intentionally did not advise a murder suspect of her rights until she confessed. Once she signed a form waiving her right to an attorney, the interrogating officer prompted her to restate her earlier confession.

The theory is that if a suspect has confessed, he or she will be less likely to ask for a lawyer when advised of a Miranda warning. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled such a strategy illegal.

"The officers themselves had discussed whether to advise my client of her rights and took the position that they were not going to until she incriminated herself," Kaminkow said. "That is exactly what the Missouri case prohibited."

Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn referred all questions to McCrone's office.

The Court of Special Appeals decision was handed down last week and was first reported yesterday in the Howard County Times.

The Court of Special Appeals will issue an order within 30 days for a new trial for Harton. She will then be transferred from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to the Howard County Detention Center, where she will be eligible for bail.

Police and prosecutors have alleged that the friends -- after a night of heavy drinking -- quarreled on the morning of March 9, 2005, and that Harton choked Magee, snapping a bone in her neck. She then dumped the body in the parking lot of a community pool in Ellicott City.

Kaminkow had argued that Harton was trying to fend off her friend, who attacked her, and in a panic repeatedly lied to police.

At sentencing, Gelfman said that Harton's "unusually wild stories," 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.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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