Vernice Harris

Vernice Harris, shown in an undated family photo. (Family photo / January 9, 2008)

As a 25-year-old mother with a crack cocaine habit and untreated bipolar disorder, Vernice Harris had felt overwhelmed enough in April 2002 to take her two little daughters to a Baltimore social services office to give them up.

Yet 2 1/2 years later she was pregnant again.She found out while she was a patient on the psychiatric ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, after she tried to kill herself with a handful of pills. A nurse broke the news that she was four months along.

This time, Harris was determined that she would raise the child, if for no other reason than to prove that she could.

"I figured if I kept her and tried again, maybe I would feel better to myself, and teach my family that I could at least try," Harris said last week in an interview at the Baltimore Women's Detention Center.

Her daughter Bryanna was 2 years old when she died in June of methadone poisoning. Last month, Harris was charged with her murder.

The case, and child protective services' handling of the troubled mother, has led to the resignation of the head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services and the firing or other disciplinary action against several employees.

In an hourlong interview, Harris, now 30, who is known as "Peaches," talked about her three daughters, her own upbringing and her mental health and addiction problems. In her own view, she was a sorry mother, but no killer of her own child.

Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, was in the room and did not permit Harris to talk about the night Bryanna died.

That night, June 5, is described in witness statements, including one from Harris, that are among police documents reviewed by The Sun.

The documents leave little doubt that Bryanna died in a chaotic and unfit environment - a 25th Street rowhouse infested with cockroaches and populated by drug addicts.

None of the police documents reviewed by The Sun refers to anyone who saw Harris give Bryanna methadone.

With a half-dozen people - many of them high on drugs - present that night, it's not clear how Bryanna came to ingest the methadone, or even that she didn't pick it up and drink it herself.

Harris told police she put Bryanna to bed that night on a full-sized mattress upstairs. Meanwhile, the drug party continued downstairs. "Everybody in there got high," one man told police.

About 3 a.m., Harris told police, she found that Bryanna had stopped breathing. Paramedics rushed her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

A toxicology report showed a "substantial" amount of methadone in Bryanna's system, according to police reports. Reports also say the child had suffered a blow to the stomach.

"I never knew Bryanna had died from methadone," Harris said when detectives questioned her Aug. 7. "Don't know how she got it. My God, I wish I did know how she got it. Then maybe I wouldn't be here."

Alcohol, mental illness

Harris was born into a family of alcoholics, she said in her jailhouse interview. Her mother, Shirley Moore Harris, died of cirrhosis of the liver when Vernice Harris was a teenager.

Louise Moore, Harris' grandmother, took up the task of raising her in the same rental house where Bryanna would drink the fatal dose of methadone years later.