Four murder indictments in Montgomery County, including exorcism case

A Montgomery County woman accused of stabbing her children in a bloody exorcism was formally indicted on first-degree murder charges Thursday. Her attorney said he plans to pursue an insanity defense.

Brian Shefferman, who represents Zakieya Avery, said his client probably was not criminally responsible for her conduct Jan. 17 inside a townhouse in Germantown. “I think the evidence will show she was clearly seriously mentally ill at the time,” he said.

Avery was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her 18-month-old son, Norell Harris, and 2-year-old daughter, Zyana Harris. She also was indicted on two counts of attempted first-degree murder in an attack on her two surviving children.

The morning of Jan. 17, police found Avery, 28, inside the townhouse — with Norell and Zyana dead upstairs and the two others critically injured. Avery would later tell detectives that she was part of a four-member group called the “Demon Assassins” and that evil spirits had taken over the children, according to prosecutors. She said the children had to be stabbed to be cleansed, prosecutors said.

Police said a second resident of the house, Monifa Sanford, 21, participated in the attacks. She, too, was indicted Thursday on two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.


Zakieya Latrice Avery (Montgomery County Police)

Sanford’s attorney, David Felsen, declined to say Thursday whether he would pursue a similar mental health defense. “All options are on the table,” he said.

Under Maryland law, people can be deemed not criminally responsible if they essentially didn’t understand that what they were doing was wrong. More specifically, the law reads: “A defendant is not criminally responsible for criminal conduct if, at the time of that conduct, the defendant, because of a mental disorder or mental retardation, lacks substantial capacity to: 1) appreciate the criminality of that conduct, or 2) conform that conduct to the requirements of law.”

How the insanity defense will play out is unclear. Avery had been previously committed to a mental health facility, according to court records. But according to arrest records, she tried to run out the back door of her townhouse when police arrived — suggesting she may have known she had done something wrong.

In unrelated cases, two other people were indicted on first-degree murder charges Thursday in Montgomery: Shaun King, who is accused of stabbing and slashing a 7-Eleven clerk about 75 times; and Brian O’Callaghan, who is accused of killing his 3-year-old son, whom he and his wife had adopted from South Korea. O’Callaghan also was indicted on one count of first-degree child abuse resulting in death.

Their attorneys could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.

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Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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