Former Howard assistant principal gets 90 days for stealing credit cards from colleagues

A former Howard County assistant principal who pleaded guilty to using stolen credit cards from school system employees and using them to purchase more than $2,500 in merchandise was sentenced to 90 days in prison Thursday.

Patricia Kelly Murray, 40, of Severna Park, was sentenced by Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Sweeney after pleading guilty to stealing credit cards from her colleagues and using them on shopping sprees at the Columbia and Montgomery malls last December.

Murray, a 12-year veteran of the school system, was placed on paid administrative leave from her position as an assistant principal at Howard High School after she was arrested on Jan. 3.

On April 30, after the school system had completed its investigation, Murray was placed on unpaid administrative leave. A spokesperson for the school system said now that a sentence has been imposed, it will move ahead with terminating Murray.

Before being named an assistant principal at Howard High in 2011, Murray spent eight years as assistant principal at Harper's Choice Middle School and three years as an English teacher at Oakland Mills High School.

State prosecutor Devora Kirschner, who sought a one-year jail sentence, said Sweeney's ruling was fair and that the victims felt like justice was served.

Murray's defense attorney, Todd Mohink, argued against jail time, citing that Murray, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has pursued psychiatric help and has taken the necessary steps to rehabilitate herself.

"We were disappointed with the sentence, but we understand it was within Judge Sweeney's decision-making capacity," Mohink said. "We genuinely believe that the evidence that was presented should not have resulted in incarceration."

The defense relied on testimony from Dr. Czarina Santos-Borja, a psychiatrist at Baltimore Washington Medical Center, where Murray admitted herself in January. According to Santos-Borja, Murray suffers from bipolar disorder and was improperly prescribed anti-depressants in October of 2011.

Santos-Borja said anti-depressants, when improperly prescribed to patients who suffer from bipolar disorder, can trigger manic episodes that lead to inhibited judgment and uncontrollable impulses.

Santos-Borja said she couldn't be sure if the medication caused Murray to have a manic episode, but did say she believes Murray was experiencing a manic episode when she committed the thefts.

Santos-Borja said Murray has progressed to the point where, if released and monitored on a weekly basis, she could fully function in society.

Sweeney said Murray's lack of criminal record, history of good moral conduct — corroborated by testimony from friends, colleagues, and family — and medical condition makes this a unique case.

"This is one of those difficult gray areas," Sweeney said.

In addition to jail time, Sweeney sentenced Murray to three years of supervised probation and ordered her to continue psychiatric treatment. Sweeney also ordered Murray to pay full restitution to the credit card companies in two weeks, and to avoid contact with the three victims.

The defense's request to appeal the sentence was denied. Murray will serve her time at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

In June, Murray pleaded guilty to use of a stolen credit card, identity fraud and theft charges in connection with two incidents on Dec. 15 and Dec. 22. A third incident, which also occurred on Dec. 22, was not pursued by the State's Attorney's Office as part of the plea agreement.

According to the statement of facts, Murray charged nearly $1,800 at eight different Montgomery mall stores on Dec. 15 to a credit card belonging to Long Reach High School vice principal Shawn Hastings-Hauf.

Hastings-Hauf reported her card stolen that night after going shopping with Murray earlier that day.

Seven days later, Murray charged $762 worth of merchandise at three separate stores to the credit card of Laurel Woods elementary school principal Susan Brown.

Brown identified Murray on surveillance footage making a purchase on her credit card at a Michaels in Laurel.

Murray admitted stealing the card and making the purchase after being told about the footage by police.

The victims would not comment on the sentence, but said in testimony that they felt Murray, who they described as a friend, betrayed their trust. Members of Murray's family also declined to comment.

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