Cellmate's story weighed at hearing

May 19, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

Lawyers for Jack L. Hammersla, who is charged with the bludgeoning death of a Smithsburg woman last November, argued during a hearing in Washington County Circuit Court on Tuesday to keep incriminating statements from being used at his June trial.

Hammersla, 46, of no fixed address, has been held at the Washington County Detention Center since mid-November after the Nov. 12 death of Shirley P. Finfrock at her 22128 Holiday Drive home in Smithsburg.

He initially was held on unrelated charges related to an alleged assault on his father on the morning of Finfrock's death. He was charged in a Jan. 10 grand jury indictment with the 68-year-old woman's murder.


He was charged in the indictment with first- and second-degree murder, first-degree felony murder-robbery, first-degree felony murder-first-degree burglary, and other charges.

Deputy District Public Defender Mary Riley entered a not guilty plea on his behalf on Jan. 14.

In a hearing set for motions Tuesday, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III heard from county sheriff's department investigators, a forensic scientist, a Hagerstown Police Department officer, a detention center corporal and Hammersla's former cellmate.

Wright said the testimony of Hammersla's former cellmate, Jerry Morsell, and the related testimony from sheriff's department Cpl. Roy Harsh, concerned him.

Morsell testified about what he said he learned from Hammersla while the two shared a cell at the jail.

On the morning of Nov. 12, "he was drunk, got into an argument with his dad, left his house and come up the railroad tracks. The back door (to Finfrock's home) was locked, but it looked inviting because of the small frames of glass," Morsell said.

Morsell testified that Hammersla told him he broke into the house, checked to see if anyone was there and found Finfrock in the bedroom.

"He started hitting her with the board," Morsell testified. "He knew she was dead and started looking for valuables."

Harsh testified that Morsell, who had formerly served time in state prison with Hammersla, met with Harsh on Jan. 26 at the jail. Harsh said Morsell, who was being held on theft charges, told him he had information related to Finfrock's death that might be of interest to the criminal investigation.

Morsell told Harsh that he asked to be cellmates with Hammersla and said he could get information on Finfrock's death from Hammersla if Harsh could cut him some slack on his own incarceration.

Harsh testified that he told Morsell no such deal could be made and ordered Morsell not to question Hammersla about the case. But Morsell testified that he talked with Hammersla about Finfrock's death in great detail and periodically sent Harsh word of what he learned.

Before the two became cellmates, Morsell testified, "Jack had confided in me he done it. Detail-wise, he didn't say a lot at that point."

Wright told Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Steven Kessell that the state's "most serious problem" is how it plans to use the statements made by Morsell.

Kessell said Harsh made "no deals" with Morsell and that Morsell was not acting as "an agent of the state" when he obtained information. He said Morsell would testify to the comments, not Harsh.

But Wright, who had already struck some comments that Hammersla allegedly made after his arrest, said he had concerns that the information concerning Morsell might be seen as being obtained illegally.

Kessell said it was Hammersla's decision to talk to Morsell without his lawyer being present. Riley argued that was an infringement of her client's Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Wright asked Kessell, "Why do you want to take the chance of having this case reversed based on this?"

Kessell replied, "I don't create the facts. I only deal with what I have."

Hammersla was held in a courthouse cell and was not in the courtroom during the hearing.

The hearing is to continue this morning.

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