Guilty plea in woman's death

The Baltimore Sun

A Columbia woman whose conviction in the 2005 strangulation of a fellow Loyola College doctoral student was overturned in September agreed to a plea deal yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court that freed her from prison.

The state Court of Special Appeals had ruled that Melissa Burch Harton, 27, was entitled to a new trial after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter because Howard County detectives waited until she made incriminating statements to advise her of her Miranda rights.

Harton's lawyer, Michael Kaminkow, said that although he believed that she had a good chance of winning at a new trial, his client insisted on taking the deal. She pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Natasha Bacchus Magee, 31, of Stewartstown, Pa., and will have to serve five years of supervised probation.

Harton was released yesterday from the Howard County Detention Center, an official at the center said last night.

"Nobody wanted to retry this case, except maybe this lawyer," Kaminkow said, referring to himself. "It was just too painful for everybody. The legal arguments really tilted in our direction ... but she didn't want to do that."

Harton had been sentenced to 10 years in prison -- the maximum penalty -- in April 2006 after a jury convicted her in February 2006 of involuntary manslaughter but acquitted her of first-degree murder.

At the brief plea hearing yesterday, Howard Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman sentenced Harton to 10 years in prison but then suspended all but the two years and 177 days that Harton had served at the detention center and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

"This resolution is the best resolution we could obtain," said Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone. "Without the confession, the quality of our case was diminished." He said the plea agreement ensures that Harton will have a permanent criminal record.

According to prosecutors, Harton choked Magee, breaking a bone in her neck, during a quarrel in March 2005 and then dumped her body in the parking lot at a community pool in Ellicott City.

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