Murder Jury Will Hear A Claim of Obsession

Victim Natasha Bacchus, shown with husband John Magee, met Melissa Harton in 2002 while both were in a doctoral program at Loyola College.
Victim Natasha Bacchus, shown with husband John Magee, met Melissa Harton in 2002 while both were in a doctoral program at Loyola College. (John Magee)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The detectives asked the question over and over and over again: Are you a lesbian?

Melissa Burch Harton, sitting with Howard County police hours after strangling her best friend, insisted that she was not, according to a transcript of the interview. But police kept pressing her in the hopes of uncovering a possible motive for the killing.

Eventually, Harton, 25, told police that her friend, Natasha A. Bacchus, 31, died after a violent argument that was, in part, over Bacchus's revelation that she was in love with her and wanted to kiss her. Bacchus's husband, however, says Harton is a compulsive liar and claims she was the one infatuated with his wife.

"It's like a soap opera," said Michael E. Kaminkow, Harton's attorney. "Did one of them have feelings beyond friendship for the other? That's probably the biggest mystery of the entire case."

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin as soon as today in Harton's trial on a charge of first-degree murder, one of Howard County's rare -- and most sensational -- homicides. Prosecutors said the killing was premeditated; Kaminkow said Harton acted in self-defense during a fight between two very drunk women.

"I don't think Melissa intentionally killed anyone," said her husband, Brett Harton, 28.

The killing took place during their 2005 spring break from Loyola College, where the two married women had met three years earlier when they began a doctoral program together in clinical psychology. Bacchus, of Stewartstown, Pa., had driven to Harton's home in Columbia to celebrate their completion of a major project.

They had a total of 18 alcoholic drinks at several bars the night of March 8, Kaminkow said. Then they drove around Columbia for several hours and began to fight, Harton told police.

Bacchus kept demanding to know what Harton's parents thought of her, Harton told police, and became irate when Harton told her: "They think you're really screwed up and you have serious issues. . . . They just want me to stay away from you."

The argument became even more heated, Harton told police, when she brought up an earlier conversation in which Bacchus revealed her sexual feelings for Harton.

"Remember how you said you were in love with me? Like how obsessed with me you feel?" Harton told Bacchus, according to Harton's account in the transcript. "That really made her mad."

The altercation turned violent sometime early March 9, and Harton eventually strangled Bacchus and dumped her body in the parking lot of a pool, police said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company