A Howard County Circuit Court jury convicted a Columbia woman yesterday of involuntary manslaughter in the strangulation death of her friend and fellow Loyola College clinical psychology doctoral student.
After deliberating for 14 1/2 hours beginning Thursday, the 12-member jury acquitted Melissa Burch Harton, 26, of the more-serious charge of first-degree murder after she admitted to strangling Natasha Bacchus Magee before dumping her body in an Ellicott City parking lot last March after the women got together during a spring break for an evening of dinner and shopping.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 17, where she could receive a maximum of 10 years in prison.
After the verdict was read, defense attorney Miriam Seddiq quoted Harton as saying, "I'm not losing my life."
Said defense attorney Michael Kaminkow: "She'll have a life and hopefully be able to put her skill to work."
Howard County State's Attorney Tim McCrone said he was disappointed with the verdict and that his office will push for the maximum 10 years.
"I can't imagine asking for anything less," McCrone said.
Jury forewoman Nancy Harry said that panel members believed it was a reasonable verdict and that they took both sides "very seriously."
"It was a difficult decision because it was a very, very sad case," Harry said.
Charles Magee, Natasha Magee's brother-in-law, asked that reporters respect the family's privacy "during this extremely difficult time."
Harton's family declined to comment.
Throughout the trial, which began Feb. 1, prosecutors argued that the crime was premeditated, pointing to the manner in which Magee, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa., was killed and Harton's lies to Howard County police.
During closing arguments Thursday, Mary Murphy, senior assistant state's attorney, reminded the jury that an assistant medical examiner testified it would take about three to four minutes of continually choking a person to cause death.
Murphy also pointed to the videotaped interview with police in which, the defense and prosecutors agreed, Harton repeatedly told lies, including that Magee was abducted by a group of men outside a restaurant.
However, the defense maintained that Harton choked Magee in self-defense after Magee attacked her during an alcohol-fueled argument, and claimed the women had at least 23 alcoholic drinks between them.
Kaminkow said the amount of alcohol Harton drank -- at least 11 drinks -- was enough to void her ability to form a specific intent to commit a crime.
In the six-hour interview with police, Harton said that in the early morning of March 9 she choked Magee after an argument in Harton's car that turned physical. Harton told police that Magee became upset with her after Harton said her parents didn't like Magee.
Harton told police that she pulled her car over on the side of Centennial Lane by the entrance to Centennial Park and again inside the park, and that she and Magee got out and began choking each other.
Harton said she then dumped Magee's body at the Dorsey Hall pool parking lot in Ellicott City.