Psych Screening for Md. Women Held in Kids’ Deaths

No bond in exorcism murder case

Two women who police say killed two young children while performing what they thought was an exorcism will remain held without bond and will have psychiatric evaluations to determine if they are competent to stand trial, a judge said Tuesday.

The women, 28-year-old Zakieya Latrice Avery and 21-year-old Monifa Denise Sanford, have told investigators that they believed evil spirits skipped successively between the bodies of the children and that an exorcism was needed to drive the demons out, said Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy.

The women also reported to investigators that they saw the eyes of each of the children blackening and, after the intended exorcism, took a shower, cleaned up the bloody scene and “prepared the children to see God,” McCarthy said. The children's two older siblings, a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, were also found injured with stab wounds.

Edward Leyden, a lawyer for Sanford, told reporters after the hearing that “everyone who is involved in this case is in deep pain.”

The women identified themselves to investigators as members of a group known as the “demon assassins,” and police are looking to interview two men who might be part of the same organization but are not believed to be suspects. Avery described herself as the commander and Sanford her sergeant.

The women are charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of two of Avery's children, ages 1 and 2 and attempted murder realted to the injuries of the older siblings, who were found injured at Avery's Germantown home, police said. They face a sentence of life in prison if convicted.

“It obviously has details that are salacious and we just ask folks to give an opportunity for all of us to get a handle on just what happened here,” Leyden said of the case, “so that when the time comes to present this to a judge and a jury, all of the facts are here.”

A lawyer for Avery did not return a call seeking comment.

Avery had been living for months in a townhome community in Germantown -- about 30 miles northwest of Washington -- with her four children, and recently, with Sanford. Police responded to the home Friday morning after a neighbor called 911 to report seeing a car with an open door and a knife that appeared to have blood on it.

Once inside, officers found the bodies of 1-year-old Norell N. Harri and 2-year-old Zyana Z. Harris on the bed of the master bedroom. Their two siblings, 5-year-old Taniya Harris and 8-year-old Martello, were found with knife wounds. The 5-year-old girl remains in critical condition but the boy was close to being released from the hospital as of Tuesday afternoon. He identified Avery as the person who stabbed him and the 1-year-old boy, police said.

The timing of the 911 call likely helped saved the lives of the older children, police said.

“If that call doesn't come in, we don't think that those two children get medical help in time to possibly save their lives,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, director of the county police department's major crimes division.

Police were also called to the home on Thursday night, hours before the killings, after a 911 caller reported that a child was unattended in a car. By the time the police arrived, the child was no longer in the car and no one answered the door at a nearby home. The women said the child was put in the car because they were set to perform an exorcism on a man named Troy.

When being questioning by police, McCarthy said, the women told investigators that they tried multiple methods to remove the presence of demons from the children, progressing from an attempt to break the neck of the youngest child to strangulation to stabbing.

The father of the children does not live in the area but was returning to be with the surviving children, Jones said Sunday.

Avery was part of a dance troupe at a nearby Christian church where “her job was, as a lover of Christ, was that she was going to keep demons away,” Jones said.

“That was their goal,” he said.

The question of whether either woman intends to submit an insanity defense has not yet been raised, and the two will first need to be examined by medical professionals and declared by a judge to be competent for trial.

“It's based on those stories, that information, that presentation and the psychiatric history ... that we made the recommendations that these two defendants immediately be seen by doctors to tell us where we stand in terms of competency as to both,” McCarthy said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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