Roommate killer has chance at lighter sentence

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, January 10, 2013

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A Navajo woman sentenced to life without a chance of parole for the killing of her University of Arizona roommate in 2007 may soon get a chance to have her sentenced revised.

The Arizona Court of Appeals issued a ruling last week that agreed with a decision by a superior court judge that Galareka Harrison's attorneys had failed to provide her an adequate defense because they had not informed the sentencing judge of possible problems in her background that may have mitigated her sentence.

However, the appeals court denied a request for a new trial and only provided Harrison with an opportunity for a new sentencing - which would give her a possibility of one day getting out of prison but probably not until she is in her 40s.

Harrison, who was 18 in 2007, was convicted in the gruesome stabbing of her roommate, Mia Henderson, also 18 and Diné.

Court testimony indicated that the two, who had been roommates only for a few days, had not been getting along and Henderson had accused Harrison of stealing $500 from her campus checking account. She had also told campus police that Harrison had stolen her university identity card as well as her social security card, which gave her access to her banking account.

The two argued and began fighting. When it was over, Henderson was dead of 23 stab wounds.

Alex Heveri, Harrison's appellate attorney, has been arguing that her two original attorneys, John O'Brien and Dawn Priestman, failed to bring up severe problems that Harrison faced in her family life during her early years, problems that made her "unprepared for college" and caused her to have a "near psychotic breakdown" when she was confronted by Henderson that night in their dorm room.

Among the things that the sentencing judge didn't know about, he said, was that Harrison had only $200 when she arrived on campus and this had to pay not only for her meals but her books as well.

To make ends meet, he said in his appellate briefing, Harrison had to skip meals and take diet pills to suppress her hunger.

Nanette Warner, the judge who sentenced Harrison, said she relied a lot on a report issued by a psychiatrist hired to evaluate Harrison but the report's author said he didn't take into consideration a lot of the problems that Harrison had as she was growing up, including parents who didn't get along and fought.

In one instance, he said, Harrison sought treatment for extreme anxiety after one of the domestic violence incidences.

Harrison's attempt to get a new sentencing hearing was bolstered by Warner's statement at the sentencing that she may have given Harrison a life sentence with the possibility of a parole after 25 years if there had been mitigating circumstances, such as abuse as a child or mental problems.

But the state can still appeal this decision to the Arizona Supreme Court so there has not been a date set yet for the resentencing.

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