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Second trial of Hammersla begins

October 03, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN - After raising a preserved wooden board that allegedly was used to beat a 68-year-old Smithsburg woman to death, Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Kessell whacked a chalkboard eraser off a low courtroom wall and described for a new jury the fate that Shirley P. Finfrock met on Nov. 12, 2003.

Kessell's animated opening statement came after attorneys took nearly three hours to seat a jury to hear the prosecution's second attempt at its case against Jack L. Hammersla Jr., whose 2004 first-degree murder convictions and sentence of life without the possiblity of parole in Finfrock's death were overturned in February by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

The appelate court ordered a new trial, saying that witness testimony about stolen jewelry during Hammersla's July 2004 trial should not have been admitted since information leading to the discovery of pawn slips for that jewelry came from a jailhouse snitch whose statements were inadmissable.

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After about three hours of bench conferences, questions and alternating strikes, a jury of six women and six men was seated.

Outside of the jury's presence, Kessell dropped one first-degree felony murder charge and a robbery charge, which he said was due in part to the appelate court's decision. Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley, who is presiding over the trial, told attorneys to make no reference to the first trial, to not mention Hammersla's prior convictions and to not mention the jailhouse snitch or any information he might have provided in the original investigation.

Hammersla, 49, faces a charge of first-degree premeditated murder and two first-degree felony murder charges, one arising out of a first-degree burglary and one arising out of a third-degree burglary, in Finfrock's death.

Before Kessell spoke in his opening statement, he hit the eraser with the plastic-sheathed 2-by-6 several times and announced, "That's what Shirley Finfrock woke up to the morning of Nov. 12, 2003."

Finfrock's husband, Edwyn Finfrock, found his wife of nearly 48 years lying dead, covered in blood, beside their bed at their 22128 Holiday Drive home after returning from a morning shift stocking shelves at Weis Markets in Hagerstown, Kessell said.

Kessell said Hammersla walked along the railroad tracks from his father's home in Cavetown and came upon the Finfrock residence, which has no fence but has back doors facing the tracks.

"He decided he was going to break into this house," Kessell said. He said Hammersla picked up the 2-by-6 from a wood pile, used it to break through a back door window and then used it to beat Shirley Finfrock when he came upon her in the master bedroom.

After beating her, Hammersla grabbed her purse and her billfold and discarded them while he walked the railroad tracks toward Hagerstown, Kessell alleged.

"During the course of burglarizing their home, he took more than just a pocketbook ... He took a wife, a mother, a member of the Smithsburg community and has left a hole that can never be filled," Kessell said.

District Deputy Public Defender Mary Riley told the jury that although Kessell's actions in his opening statement were "startling and scary," jurors should not rely on their emotions to guide their decisions about Hammersla.

"No one saw Jack Hammersla at the Finfrock home," Riley told the jury. She said there were "no confessions, no admissions" and said that the prosecution has no evidence Hammersla was found in possession of any property stolen from the home.

Referring to the forensic television show "CSI," Riley said investigators found no "fingerprints or trace evidence" at the Finfrock house connecting Hammersla to the scene.

Kessell told jurors that a spot of blood found on a jacket Hammersla wore Nov. 15 matched the blood of Shirley Finfrock. Riley, in her opening statement, told jurors Hammersla "denied owning or ever possessing" the jacket on the day of Finfrock's death.

Edwyn Finfrock, the first witness to take the stand Monday afternoon, testified that he returned home from work at Weis Markets before 11:30 a.m., unlocked the front door, called out to his wife and put the gallon of milk he bought at the store in the refrigerator, figuring she was busy getting dressed for a shopping trip to Chambersburg, Pa. Edwyn Finfrock testified he then found his wife covered in blood on the bedroom floor.

He testified that he first thought his wife committed suicide because the couple had an argument over house chores a few days before and whenever the couple argued, "she threatened to kill herself."

Kessell told jurors in his opening statement that police ruled out Edwyn Finfrock as a suspect.

Before Edwyn Finfrock left home that morning, he described the relationship with his wife as "good."

"I kissed her goodbye and told her I loved her," Finfrock testified, his voice cracking.

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