A teenage girl accused of conspiring to kill her father pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder — abandoning earlier plans to claim that her mental state absolved her of responsibility in the gruesome death of the prominent Howard County businessman.
Morgan Lane Arnold, 16, admitted in Howard County Circuit Court that she plotted with her boyfriend to kill Dennis Lane, 58, who was stabbed to death in his Ellicott City home in May 2013.
Arnold is being held at Howard County Detention Center and faces life in prison when she is sentenced in August.
"Certainly we will be asking for as little amount of jail time as the judge will consider," said Arnold's lawyer, Joe Murtha, as he stood outside the county courthouse with the teen's mother and family friends. "A 16-year-old who is profoundly mentally ill should not be warehoused for the rest of her life."
Arnold has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder. Murtha had tried unsuccessfully to have the case transferred to juvenile court.
Prosecutors will not publicly comment on the case before sentencing, said Wayne Kirwan, spokesman for the county state's attorney's office.
Lane was a popular businessman who worked in commercial real estate and published a blog called "Tales of Two Cities" about Ellicott City and Columbia. He also co-hosted a podcast called "And Then There's That."
As she left the courthouse, one of his sisters, Barbara Sandusky, said the plea would help her move toward a sense of closure.
"But the sentence will give us our final closure," said Sandusky, who wore a pin with her brother's photo on it. Other family members attended the hearing but left without commenting.
Arnold, who was 14 at the time of the murder, did not speak much at Tuesday's hearing, offering brief answers to procedural questions from her attorney.
"Yep," she replied when Murtha asked if she felt her mind was clear and she could understand the terms of her plea.
Prosecutors dropped other charges, including conspiracy and solicitation of murder, as part of the plea agreement. They said they will seek a life sentence with the possibility of parole and will not oppose the teenager's being sent to a program for young offenders at the Patuxent Institution.
Judge William Tucker accepted Arnold's guilty plea and set her sentencing for Aug. 28.
Arnold's defense team had previously planned to argue that she was not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. Her mental health problems have been the focus of previous court proceedings.
In Maryland, defendants can be found not criminally responsible if they can show they were not accountable for their actions because of mental impairments.
"We made a determination that it was not an appropriate defense to pursue at this time," Murtha said after the hearing.
Prosecutors on Tuesday laid out details of how Arnold asked her then-boyfriend, Jason Bulmer, to kill her father and his girlfriend, Denise Geiger, who awoke as Lane was being attacked. On the night of the murder, they said, Arnold had left a basement door unlocked for Bulmer so he could get into the house on Winding Ross Way. Geiger was not injured in the attack.
Last year, Bulmer pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, admitting he fatally stabbed Lane, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was 19 at the time of Lane's death, and his lawyers had described him as intellectually limited.
Arnold did not visibly react as Assistant State's Attorney Danielle Duclaux read a statement of facts detailing the murder plot. Arnold wore a black dress, gray sweater and sheer black tights, with most of her long brown hair messily pulled back into a low ponytail.
Duclaux said that if the case had gone to trial, prosecutors would have shown that Arnold and Bulmer exchanged multiple messages on Skype planning the attack for months before Bulmer fatally stabbed Lane on May 10, 2013. The messages showed they planned to run away to California after the killing.
During a search of Lane's home after the murder, Duclaux said, investigators found Bulmer's backpack in the basement, which contained male clothing, loose change and a book titled "Book of the Witch Moon."
Duclaux also read excerpts from Arnold's diary, which was collected as evidence.
"Dear Diary," Arnold wrote on April 27, 2013. "Dad was so rude to my boyfriend and me today. My boyfriend wants to kill my dad. I think I would like that."
Arnold went on to write that she wanted to stab her father with a kitchen knife.
"Then I would leave him there to bleed out and die slowly and painfully," she wrote, signing the diary entry, "Sincerely, Morgan Arnold."
Cindi Arnold said after the hearing that her daughter never got the help she needed for her mental problems. Cindi Arnold and Dennis Lane were never married, and previous court proceedings have shown that they did not agree on how best handle their daughter's health problems.
"She, at a young age, was denied a lot of mental health support that she needed, and this didn't happen in a vacuum," Cindi Arnold said of her daughter.
Both Murtha and Cindi Arnold said the teenager does not seem to grasp the gravity of the consequences she faces.
Cindi Arnold said she recently asked her daughter if she understood what would happen if she was locked up for years.
"Her response was to say, 'As long as I have books to read, I'll be O.K.'" her mother said. "That's her level of understanding."