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Conviction overturned

Court orders new trial for Hammersla

Court orders new trial for Hammersla

February 04, 2006|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN -

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has overturned the 2004 murder conviction of Jack L. Hammersla Jr., who's serving a life sentence in the slaying of Shirley P. Finfrock in her home near Smithsburg.

Alleging errors by the trial judge, the appellate court - in a written opinion filed Wednesday - ordered that a new trial be held in Washington County Circuit Court.

The opinion focuses on what Hammersla told fellow inmate Jerry Morsell at Washington County Detention Center, how Morsell passed details to police and how those comments led to other testimony in the case.

Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III correctly ruled that certain information Morsell gathered be suppressed because it violated Hammersla's Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the opinion says.

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However, Wright allowed testimony about stolen jewelry at the trial, which sprang from inadmissible statements, the opinion says.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said he was disappointed by the court's decision. He declined to comment further since the case might be retried.

Strong said his office will talk to the Maryland Attorney General's Office about whether to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

The Court of Special Appeals' mandate, or order, for a new trial will take effect on March 3, said Sally Rankin, the court information officer for the Maryland Judiciary. The prosecution then will have 15 court business days to petition the Court of Appeals for a review.

Deputy District Public Defender Mary Riley, who helped represent Hammersla during his trial, said Friday that she heard the conviction was overturned, but she hadn't seen the opinion and couldn't comment.

Two phone messages left for Finfrock's family on Friday were not returned.

Finfrock, 68, was beaten to death at her Holiday Drive home on Nov. 12, 2003.

Police reports and trial testimony indicated that Hammersla broke into the home and clubbed her to death with a board from a wood pile.

A jury convicted him of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, burglary, theft, robbery and malicious destruction of property.

In August 2004, Wright sentenced Hammersla to life in prison without the possibility of parole for premeditated murder and lesser terms for the other counts.

Hammersla, 48, is at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, Md., Division of Correction spokeswoman Maj. Priscilla Doggett said Friday.

During a May 2004 hearing, Roy Harsh of the Washington County Sheriff's Department testified that Hammersla didn't want to discuss the homicide case with him, the appellate court opinion says.

On Jan. 26, 2004, Harsh - a corporal then, since promoted to sergeant - met with Morsell, who was at Washington County Detention Center with Hammersla, according to the opinion.

Morsell recalled comments Hammersla had made about the case to Harsh, who warned Morsell not to question Hammersla about the homicide.

Yet, at Morsell's request, Harsh arranged the next day for Morsell and Hammersla to be housed together, the opinion says.

During two other meetings with Harsh, Morsell shared more information he got from Hammersla, including details of jewelry he allegedly stole from Finfrock's house and sold at a pawn shop, the opinion says.

Wright ruled that the state could introduce voluntary comments Hammersla made to Morsell before Jan. 27, but no comments after that date.

The opinion says that although Harsh did not ask Morsell to question Hammersla on behalf of authorities, his actions "impliedly evidenced a desire that Morsell continue to feed the police information as shown by the fact that he arranged for the two to become roommates."

The state had no proof it would have known about the jewelry and pawn shop without Morsell's help, the opinion says.

The state also didn't convince the court "beyond a reasonable doubt that the erroneously admitted evidence 'in no way influenced the verdict,'" the opinion says.

Asked Friday about inmates as investigative sources, Col. Doug Mullendore of the sheriff's department said they can share information they've heard, as long as they aren't "acting as an agent of the police."

Mullendore said police occasionally get help from inmates this way. "It doesn't happen a lot," he said, "but it does happen from time to time."

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