Calling it "one of the most difficult decisions that this court has ever had to make," a Howard County judge on Wednesday sentenced a teenager who plotted her father's murder to 30 years in prison.
In sentencing 17-year-old Morgan Lane Arnold, Circuit Judge William Tucker said he had to balance the teen's age and history of mental problems with evidence that she spent months planning the murder of her father, 58-year old Dennis Lane, and that she manipulated her boyfriend into fatally stabbing him.
"This was a well-thought-out plan," Tucker said in a courtroom filled with family and friends of the father and daughter. "It's clear that she was the main culprit."
Lane was stabbed to death in his Ellicott City home in May 2013. Arnold's boyfriend at the time, Jason Bulmer, now 22, pleaded guilty in 2014 to killing Lane and received a 30-year sentence.
Lane was a well-known businessman in Howard County who wrote a popular blog and co-hosted a podcast. His friends and family described him as a gregarious man who was devoted to his daughter.
The murder shocked the county, and Tucker said he remembered exactly where he was when the news came out — at a judicial conference on the Eastern Shore. Other officials from Howard County also were there, he recalled.
"Every single one said, 'Did you hear about Dennis Lane?'" he said.
Tucker gave Arnold a life sentence, suspending all but 30 years. He said he would recommend that she stay at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. The maximum security prison provides specialized treatment with the help of psychology, social work and other professionals.
County prosecutors sought life imprisonment for Arnold, who was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty in May to first-degree murder.
The prosecution pointed to months of planning. They said Arnold left a door unlocked at the home so Bulmer could sneak in to commit the murder — and that she also wanted him to kill Lane's girlfriend, Denise Geiger.
Both Arnold and Bulmer were social misfits at Mount Hebron High, according to testimony from witnesses. Their relationship was highlighted throughout court proceedings.
One of Lane's sisters told the judge Wednesday that her brother had tried to "put the kibosh" on the teenage romance because Bulmer was so much older than Arnold.
"Morgan is smart — smart and cunning," Kelly Lane said during tearful testimony as she read from a written statement. "Smart and manipulative. She's not happy unless she is the center of attention and getting her way."
She suggested it was Arnold that had manipulated Bulmer.
"Jason Bulmer was her first victim," Kelly Lane said. "His life is ruined."
Throughout the case, the defense suggested that Arnold feared Bulmer. But Tucker said he read thousands of the couple's text messages that were entered as evidence, and did not believe that.
"It was Morgan Arnold that was the one that manipulated" Bulmer, the judge said.
Testifying Wednesday, Arnold's mother, Cindi Arnold, said she noticed a great change in her daughter after she began dating Bulmer. The girl became interested in horror stories and started dressing in black clothing, she said.
Morgan Arnold's mental and developmental history was a focus of the case. She has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, schizoaffective disorder, attention-deficit disorder and Asperger's syndrome, according to testimony.
Cindi Arnold told Tucker that her daughter had no history of violence — and said she needs treatment, not incarceration.
"She would carry a mosquito outside rather than kill it," she said. "That's the Morgan that I know."
Cindi Arnold and Dennis Lane, who were never married, shared custody of Arnold and often disagreed on how to raise her, according to testimony.
Defense attorney Joe Murtha argued that Arnold should serve a sentence similar to Bulmer. He urged Tucker to take her young age into consideration — she was 14 at the time of the murder — and said she was "significantly impaired."
Morgan Arnold, who wore a black dress and gray sweater, declined to address the court before she was sentenced.
"She told me she might pass out because she was feeling so anxious," Murtha said.
After the hearing, Murtha said he was "relieved for Morgan Arnold that she won't be incarcerated for the rest of her life."
"There's a long way to go, and she needs help," he said outside the courthouse in Ellicott City. "I don't think she appreciates the gravity of what happened, nor the consequences of her actions, but with help, she will in the future."
Cindi Arnold declined to comment after the sentencing. So did Geiger and members of Lane's family.
"It was a tough case," said prosecutor Doug Nelsen.
"It was a case where there are no winners," added prosecutor Danielle Duclaux.