A Howard County judge ruled Wednesday that a teenager accused in her father's killing can plead not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, reversing his earlier decision that her plea was not filed on time.
Sixteen-year-old Morgan Lane Arnold's lawyers say the girl's mental health is central to their case. Arnold is accused of conspiring last year with her boyfriend to fatally stab her father, Dennis Lane, of Ellicott City. Her trial is scheduled for February.
But prosecutors said that as legal proceedings drag out, Arnold is changing her story to fit the legal definition of "not criminally responsible," which means a defendant cannot be held accountable because of mental impairments.
"Now the offense is 16 months old, and Ms. Arnold's statements to the evaluators continue to change," prosecutor Doug Nelsen told Circuit Judge William Tucker. "She's been educated on what she needs to say in order to make that happen."
Tucker said he understands concerns that Arnold could be coached but added that mental health professionals are trained to assess whether that's the case.
Arnold's lawyers had tried to get her case transferred to the juvenile system, but Tucker ruled in August that Arnold would be tried as an adult in the first-degree murder case. At the time, he said it was too late for Arnold to plead not criminally responsible. He said he changed his stance Wednesday after reviewing case law and both sides' arguments.
Prosecutors argued that under procedural rules, Arnold's legal team should have entered her plea long ago but delayed doing so as a tactical decision.
Joseph Murtha, Arnold's attorney, noted that the juvenile system does not have a plea of "not criminally responsible."
Murtha said after the hearing that he was grateful for the ruling because the insanity plea is "vital to our ability to effectively represent her." In previous court testimony in the case, witnesses said she has been diagnosed with Asperger's, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder.
"Her mental health has always been the primary focus of this case for us," Murtha said, adding that she will now undergo further psychiatric evaluation.
When Tucker ruled earlier that Arnold should be tried as an adult, he acknowledged that the teen appears to suffer from mental illness, but he said there is no guarantee she would get the help she needs in the five years that she would spend in the juvenile system. The juvenile system only has jurisdiction until a defendant turns 21.
Also Wednesday, the state's attorney's office told Tucker it would withdraw its notice of intention to seek a sentence of life without parole if Arnold is found guilty. Through a spokesman, prosecutors declined to comment on why they did so.
Investigators say Morgan Arnold, 14 at the time, and her then-boyfriend, Jason Bulmer, conspired to kill Lane, whom Bulmer stabbed to death in Lane's Ellicott City home in May 2013. Lane, 58, was a popular businessman who worked in commercial real estate and published a blog on local issues.
Defense lawyers have tried to portray Arnold as childlike, and prosecutors this summer accused them of bringing stuffed animals to court as "props" to make the teen appear younger. On Wednesday, Arnold wore a yellow jail jumpsuit, had no stuffed animals and seemed more engaged in the proceedings than she has been in previous court sessions.
The teen's mother, Cindi Arnold, said allegations that her daughter has changed her story are unfounded.
'"She has not fundamentally changed her story in any way," Cindi Arnold said. "In fact, she does not even, still, remember the events of that evening."
Bulmer, 19 at the time of the incident, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.