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Woman accused in exorcism killings claims insanity

A Montgomery County Police handout photo of Monifa Denise Sanford. (MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE / HANDOUT/EPA)

An attorney for one of two Montgomery County women accused of fatally stabbing two children in a bloody exorcism said in court Friday that he would pursue an insanity defense, known in Maryland as “not criminally responsible.”

The defendant, Monifa Sanford, 21, is scheduled to be tried on first-degree murder charges in late August. She is accused of killing the two children on Jan. 17 inside a Germantown townhouse.

The children’s mother, Zakieya Avery, faces the same charges in the deaths of the children — ages 18 months and 2 years old. Their older siblings — ages 5 and 8 — survived knife wounds. Both women also are charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder

Sanford’s attorney, David Felsen, said after the hearing that his client may end up facing a two-part trial. The first part, he said would address “whether she committed the acts alleged and — if she did — the second part would address whether she was criminally responsible.”

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.”

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Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County. He arrived at the paper in 2005, after reporting stops at the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is the author of The Yoga Store Murder.

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