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Hammersla might be eligible for parole

March 02, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- A man convicted twice for the 2003 murder of a 68-year-old Smithsburg woman in her home must be resentenced, and might one day be eligible for parole, according to a Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision.

Jack L. Hammersla Jr., 51, was found guilty of first-degree felony murder in the Nov. 12, 2003, bludgeoning death of Shirley P. Finfrock. Washington County Circuit Judge Donald Beachley sentenced him Nov. 21, 2006, to life in prison without the possibility of parole for that conviction and to a concurrent 30-year sentence for second-degree murder in Finfrock's death.

A first-degree felony murder conviction is based on a first-degree burglary. A first-degree felony murder conviction is one in which the prosecution proves a murder was carried out during the commission of another crime.

Hammersla's attorneys presented two questions for the higher court's review: Whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury that witnesses identified Hammersla as the person who committed the crime and whether the trial court erred in sentencing the appellant to life without parole.

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The Court of Special Appeals, in the decision filed Thursday, found that the jury instructions were not in error and upheld the conviction.

However, the higher court vacated the sentence of life in prison without parole and sent the case back to Washington County Circuit Court for resentencing on the felony murder conviction.

The judge would not be able to reimpose a sentence of life without parole.

Hammersla has already been tried twice. In 2004, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. In February 2006, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned his conviction and subsequent sentence. The appellate court ruled pawn slip and jewelry evidence should not have been admitted in the 2004 trial.

Hammersla was tried and convicted again in 2006.

According to Maryland law, a defendant found guilty of murder in the first degree may be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole only if the state gives written notice to the defendant, at least 30 days before trial, that it will seek that sentence. Hammersla's appeal claimed that the state did not give him proper notice before his second trial.

While the state gave Hammersla proper notice before the first trial, when the appellate court vacated that decision, it "wiped the slate clean." The state did not give appropriate notice before the second trial, according to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision.

A motion filed by Hammersla's attorneys in 2006 says the second notice was filed Sept. 19 and the trial began Oct. 2, 2006.

In a response to a defense motion seeking to strike life without parole as a sentencing option, prosecutors said they never withdrew their first written notice -- signed by Hammersla on May 19, 2004 -- before the start of the Oct. 2 retrial. Since prosecutors never withdrew the notice and because they also sent Hammersla a letter reminding him of their intent, the prosecutors said life without parole should remain a sentencing option, according to the response.

On the morning of Nov. 12, 2003, Edwyn Finfrock returned from a morning shift at Weis Markets in Hagerstown and found his wife of nearly 48 years lying dead, covered in blood, beside their bed at their 22128 Holiday Drive home.

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

"He decided he was going to break into this house," Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Kessell said during the second trial. He said Hammersla picked up a two-by-six from a woodpile, 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 Finfrock, Hammersla grabbed her purse and her billfold, and later discarded them while he walked the railroad tracks toward Hagerstown, Kessell said at the time.

When he was found three days after the murder, Hammersla had splinters in his hands and a spot of Finfrock's blood on his blue plaid flannel jacket, according to court testimony. Several witnesses testified they saw a man wearing that jacket walk the railroad tracks that led behind the Finfrocks' home in Smithsburg the morning of her death.

Kessell, who handled both trials for the state, said Monday that his office was conferring with the state Attorney General's office about whether to request that the Court of Appeals review the Court of Special Appeals' decision.

The decision will be made within 30 days, Kessell said.

His office was pleased that Hammersla's conviction was upheld, Kessell said.

"Reading the court's opinion, I don't agree with their reasoning, but we accept the opinion as it is and will review our options," he said.

Hammersla had been out of prison for about eight months when Finfrock was killed, according to published reports at the time.

Kessell said back then that Hammersla served 21 years of a 30-year sentence for assault with the intent to murder for stabbing a man in front of The Maryland Theatre.

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