A woman who was granted a new trial after being found guilty in 2016 of stabbing her grandmother to death in Burkittsville pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder, according to prosecutors.
Hestina Lakeisha Harris, 24, was originally sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole on July 21, 2016, after a trial that lasted more than a week in Frederick County Circuit Court earlier that year. Her attorneys filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which released an opinion on April 5, 2019, overturning the conviction and setting a new trial, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ records.
The opinion was made based on two objections defense attorneys made to prosecutors’ questions that were overruled at the initial trial that the higher appeals court decided should not have been, according to the records.
Specifically, the defense had objected to prosecutors asking the lead detective in the case whether any of Harris’ family members at any time requested that he further his investigation and again when the lead detective was asked if it was common for families of murder victims to initiate contact with him regarding murder investigations, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion.
“We conclude that it was error for the trial court to permit [those] questions to be asked, and the error was not harmless,” the opinion reads in part. “Consequently, we shall reverse the conviction and remand the case for a new trial.”
Harris had been set to appear for a hearing in the new trial early next month, with a trial tentatively scheduled to begin April 27, but she instead opted to plead guilty to first-degree murder in a hearing Tuesday before Judge Scott Rolle, who also presided over Harris’ first trial.
Rolle again imposed a life sentence on Tuesday, but suspended all but 60 years of the sentence, meaning Harris will have to serve 60 years before she is released to serve a term of five years of supervised probation, according to a press release issued by the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Harris’ family has remained supportive and forgiving of her throughout the case, a fact that Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith recognized in a statement he released after Tuesday’s hearing.
“This has been a delicate situation where the victim’s family is also the family of the defendant. Quite frankly, we just haven’t seen eye to eye. Our obligation to the community always prevails, which is why we were not willing to go below the 60 year sentence,” Smith’s statement reads in part. “Deputy State’s Attorney Kirsten Brown and Assistant State’s Attorney Erin Pearl worked very hard to gain a conviction in the first trial, and short of this substantial sentence, were willing to do so again.”
Assistant Public Defender Matthew Frawley, who handled Harris’ case in the original trial and through Tuesday’s sentencing with Supervising Attorney Ashley Sener, also responded to The Frederick News-Post’s questions via email Tuesday evening.
“The loss of Lillie Morris has been an extremely sad event for the entire family. Lillie’s family has always supported Hestina and wants only the best for her. The plea entered by Hestina Harris is an acceptance of responsibility and the agreed sentence creates an opportunity for Ms. Harris to rejoin her family in the future. The family hopes that as this sad chapter closes, the next chapters are brighter,” Frawley said.
Frawley, who expressed some disappointment at Rolle’s initial sentence in the case in 2016 that the judge had not ordered Harris receive treatment at a facility Frawley had recommended at that time, did not wish to comment further regarding that issue when reached Tuesday.
The underlying crime happened Dec. 22, 2014, when Harris called 911 to report that her grandmother, 67-year-old Lillie Marie Morris, had been stabbed to death by an unknown man who had entered the family’s home in the 5400 block of Burkittsville Road. State police arrived to find Morris in front of the house, along with Harris and several passers-by. An autopsy later revealed that Morris had suffered 20 stab wounds and three wounds to her head, arms, back and torso, according to stories published previously in The Frederick News-Post.
State police quickly began to doubt Harris’ account, and several other versions she provided later under further questioning, and Harris was arrested within days of Morris’ death on charges of first- and second-degree murder and first-degree assault.
Harris initially filed pleas of “not guilty” and “not criminally responsible” in Circuit Court, but a psychiatrist who performed a court-ordered evaluation of Harris ultimately determined that Harris had the capacity to understand she was committing a crime, previous stories indicate.