Mother gets 10 years after failing drug treatment

January 24, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

Vernice Harris, the Baltimore woman convicted of manslaughter after her 2-year-old daughter died of methadone poisoning, was sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison for failing the drug treatment program that was required for probation. The sentence was the maximum possible.

During a contentious hearing before Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory, Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, argued that her client deserved a second chance and that her infractions - writing love notes to a male patient - hardly warranted dismissing her from Second Genesis, a residential treatment program in Crownsville.

But prosecutor Julie Drake argued that Harris, 31, had broken one of the facility's "cardinal rules" - no relationships - had threatened another patient and had not complied with homework assignments. Drake said that Harris needed to be placed in a female-only treatment program and that the only one that exists is at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, a state prison.

Harris' therapist at Second Genesis testified that Harris, unlike other patients, was given a second chance after admitting writing the first letter and that others had been kicked out for similar conduct. She said talk about Harris' behavior and her "crush" on the other patient were becoming disruptive in group therapy sessions.

Doory said the city's court medical officer had all but predicted this outcome.

Quoting from Dr. Thomas Oglesby's evaluation, Doory said that Harris had demonstrated difficulty "throughout her life" "delaying personal gratification" and "overreacting in intimate relationships" by fighting and threatening suicide. Should Harris violate her probation, Oglesby wrote that she should be "immediately returned to jail."

"That's not an optimistic report about the commitment we decided to make," Doory said.

Harris has acknowledged being addicted to crack, attempting suicide and having bipolar disorder, but she has denied feeding her daughter methadone to keep her quiet. Rowland said yesterday that Harris has a learning disability and a ninth-grade education. The attorney said Harris has been treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for a psychiatric disorder.

The death of Harris' daughter, Bryanna, of a methadone overdose during a drug party at her house exposed numerous mistakes by the state's child welfare system.

Harris took the stand in her own defense, saying that she had only written one letter and that the second one, which staff confiscated from her notebook, was intended for someone outside the facility.

On cross-examination, Drake read a portion of the second letter, in which Harris wrote that she would like to "go out" with the intended recipient once they "get out of here," which implied the letter was directed toward another patient.

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