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Judge prohibits cellmate's testimony in slaying case

May 20, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Statements Jack L. Hammersla Jr. is alleged to have made to his cellmate after Jan. 27 will not be admissible at his June trial in the death of a Smithsburg woman, a Washington County Circuit judge ruled Wednesday.

But Judge Frederick C. Wright III denied motions to suppress evidence related to how Hammersla was identified as a suspect and about physical evidence gathered from him.

Hammersla, 46, of no fixed address, was charged in a January indictment with first- and second-degree murder, first-degree felony murder-robbery and other charges in the Nov. 12, 2003, bludgeoning death of Shirley P. Finfrock, 68, at her 22128 Holiday Drive home in Smithsburg.

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He has been held at the Washington County Detention Center since mid-November. He initially was held on unrelated charges connected to an alleged assault on his father on the morning of Finfrock's death and later was charged in Finfrock's death.

Mary Riley, deputy district public defender, entered a not guilty plea on Hammersla's behalf on Jan. 14.

Jerry Morsell, a man who knew Hammersla from an earlier stay in state prison, testified Tuesday that he asked to be Hammersla's cellmate at the detention center after Hammersla confided in him about some details of the case.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Cpl. Roy Harsh testified Tuesday that he did not make any deals with Morsell to get information from Hammersla and had ordered him not to question Hammersla about the case.

Morsell testified, however, that he talked with Hammersla about Finfrock's death in great detail and periodically sent Harsh word of what he learned.

Riley argued Tuesday that information Morsell obtained should be suppressed on the grounds that Morsell was acting as an agent of the state when he obtained the information he provided to police. She said the information was obtained in violation of Hammersla's Sixth Amendment right to counsel because he did not have an attorney present when he talked to Morsell.

Wright ruled Wednesday that any information police obtained from Morsell after the two men became cellmates on Jan. 27 would not be permitted at trial.

Morsell testified Tuesday that before they became cellmates, Hammersla "had confided in me he done it."

On Wednesday, Wright told Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Steven Kessell that he believed Harsh was "a very credible person," and said he understands the investigator's job is to solve crimes. But Wright pointed out that Harsh, during his Tuesday testimony, said he was concerned about Morsell's involvement in the investigation.

Wright said, "Even (Harsh), with his knowledge and experience, saw that it could be a red flag. He saw a possible problem and he was right."

Wright ruled that identifications from a photo array, and information about physical evidence could be used at the trial.

On Tuesday, Washington County Sheriff's Department Investigator Greg Alton testified that he showed an unmarked picture of Hammersla to a woman, who identified Hammersla as the man she saw walking along the railroad tracks on the morning of Finfrock's death. He also testified that a photo array, with Hammersla's picture included, was shown to several other witnesses, who identified Hammersla as the person they saw that morning along the railroad tracks near Finfrock's house.

Assistant Public Defender Brian Hutchison, argued Tuesday that in the photo array, Hammersla was the only person pictured wearing a flannel shirt, an identifier in the original description of the "person of interest" that he said unfairly pointed suspicion at his client.

Hutchison said other photographs included in the array were of people who appeared much younger than the described 40-something "person of interest."

Alton testified that he was looking for white males in their 30s to 40s with brown wavy hair, wearing layered clothing, in the 30 minutes he took to compile the photo array. He testified that it is difficult to put together an array with each person's characteristics matching a specific description.

Western Maryland Regional Crime Lab Forensic Scientist Susan Blankenship testified on Tuesday that she asked Hammersla if "he would mind if" she tested stains found on his clothing for blood and if "he would mind if" she removed splinters found in his hands. She testified that Hammersla voluntarily allowed her to do both.

Hammersla was not brought to Circuit Court on Wednesday for the hearing, Riley said.

His trial is set to begin June 28 and is expected to take five days.

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