Maryland Mother Found Not Criminally Responsible in ‘Exorcism' Stabbings of Children

Judge will have to decide whether she was insane at the time of the murders

The Maryland mother charged with killing her two small children in an "exorcism" has been found not criminally responsible.

Zakieya Avery had faced life in prison, but she will be sent to a mental health institution instead.

She and a housemate were charged with killing Avery's two toddlers and wounding her two older children in January 2014 at their Germantown townhouse. Avery's toddlers were found dead inside the house, and their older brother and sister were seriously injured.

Avery and the housemate, Monifa Sanford, told police they were demon assassins and they were performing exorcisms on the children. 

Avery, now 31, entered a guilty plea in court Monday but claimed she was insane at the time of the murders. The judge described the murders as "gruesome and chilling" when accepting the plea.

In court, family and doctors testified that Avery had a long history of mental illness, including hearing voices. The defense submitted video of police questioning Avery right after the murders as proof of her mental illness.

The doctors said Avery was insane at the time of the murders and should not be held criminally responsible. 


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On Thursday, the judge issued a ruling agreeing with this assessment.

"I conclude Miss Avery's motive was an exorcism to rid her children of demons," Montgomery County Judge Terrence McGann said.

He ordered her committed to Clifton T. Perkins mental hospital for treatment.

Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said he respects McGann's decision.

"As long as I am state's attorney we will be fighting to make sure that during the time I'm state's attorney she stays locked up," he said.

"We are very happy with the outcome because we do believe that she's where she needs to be," Avery's cousin Kaliha Brooks said. "She definitely needs psychiatric help she didn't belong in a prison."

She said Avery is just beginning to understand what happened.

"She didn't remember any of those things, especially the footage from the police cameras, so it was news to her and all very heavy," Brooks said. "If you were in the courtroom, you know she was breaking down crying along with the rest of us."

Sanford was also found not criminally responsible after she pleaded guilty last January. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital. 

Women Told Police They Tried to Drive Demons Out of Children

According to the state's evidence, in the year leading up to the killings, the two women had become increasingly obsessed with demons.

After the attacks, Avery and Sanford told investigators that they believed evil spirits jumped between the bodies of the children and that they needed to perform an exorcism to drive the demons out, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy has said.

The women were charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Norell Harris, 1, and Zyana Harris, 2, as well as two counts of attempted first-degree murder for stabbing and wounding Avery's 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

When being questioned by police, the women told investigators that they had tried multiple methods to remove the presence of demons from the children, progressing from attempting to break the neck of the youngest child to strangulation to stabbing.

A neighbor called 911 after seeing a car with an open door and a knife that appeared to have blood on it. The timing of that 911 call likely helped saved the lives of the older children, police have said.

Prosecutors said the women left the bodies of Norell and Zyana Harris on a bed. The older children were found with stab wounds.

Authorities said Sanford had recently moved into the townhouse where Avery had been living with her four children. The women identified themselves to investigators as members of a group known as the "demon assassins."

Avery described herself as the commander and Sanford her sergeant.

Edward Leyden, a lawyer for Sanford, told reporters after a hearing in January 2014 that "everyone who is involved in this case is in deep pain."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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