ELKTON — A judge committed a man to a state psychiatric hospital Wednesday after finding him guilty of attempted murder and lesser charges relating to him pointing to a loaded sawed-off shotgun at two Cecil County Sheriff’s Office deputies while threatening to kill them at his Earleville residence in January 2011.
The CCSO deputies, Jeremy Strohecker and Michael Zack, opened fire on the gunman — Ehrlich Carwile Harter, now 75 — and wounded him five times. A Maryland State Police helicopter crew flew Harter to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore, where he underwent surgery and was later arraigned during a bedside proceeding while under guard.
On Wednesday, at the conclusion of a two-day-long bench trial, Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Brenda A. Sexton found Harter guilty of 14 charges, including two counts each of attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault. The judge acquitted Harter of two counts of attempted first-degree murder, the most serious charge, which is punishable by up to life in prison.
Harter faced up to 60 years in prison at that juncture of the trial, with the lesser convictions merging into the two attempted second-degree murder convictions.
But during the second phase of the trial, which occurred directly after the judge rendered her guilty verdicts, Sexton ruled that Harter was “not criminally responsible” for his offenses. In doing so, the judge agreed with a conclusion made by a state psychiatrist who had examined Harter.
The defense had entered a “not criminally responsible,” plea on behalf of Harter. Sexton addressed that plea during the second phase of the trial. In making her decision, the judge referred to a report submitted by the psychiatrist who had examined Harter. A “not criminally responsible” plea is commonly known among laypeople as an insanity plea. It means that the defendant did not possess the mental faculties to discern the criminality of his or her actions.
After ruling that Harter was “not criminally responsible,” Sexton committed Harter to a state psychiatric hospital. Harter will not gain his freedom until psychiatrists conclude that he is no longer a threat to himself and to others.
Harter’s mental status is the main reason it took 12 1/2 years for his attempted murder case to go to trial. (His month-long treatment and recovery at the trauma hospital, after the police-involved shooting, and the pandemic-related suspension of court proceedings, starting in March 2020, also caused delays in Harter’s case.)
Harter spent about two months in the Cecil County Detention Center as a pre-trial inmate in 2011, before the defense maintained that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. He was transferred to a state psychiatric hospital, where conclusions by doctors supported that defense assertion.
He remained at that “mentally incompetent” status for several years, before psychiatrists determined that Harter’s condition had improved to the point that he could understand a court proceeding and could assist in his own defense. During this week’s trial, Harter was still an involuntarily-committed patient at Spring Grove Hospital Center, a psychiatric facility in Catonsville, court records show.
“I am telepathic, clairvoyant and a messenger of God,” Harter told the judge Tuesday, after Sexton reported from the bench that Harter had submitted several rambling, handwritten letters to the court.
Based on information later provided in court by Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Sentman, the prosecutor, Harter had those signed letters “Jesus.”
During his testimony later that day, Harter commented, “I’m the second person of the holy trinity and I’m trying to save America.”
His court-appointed attorney, Assistant Public Defender Jason Ricke, told the judge during his opening statement Tuesday that Harter’s skewered perception of reality contributed greatly to the incident at his mobile home in the unit block of Green Street in the Crystal Beach Manor community at approximately 1 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2011.
Harter, who was 63 at the time, believed that he was working with police to battle a drug problem in his community, according to Ricke. Harter’s testimony was in line with his defense lawyer’s assessment of him. Ricke reported that Harter made his living repairing televisions and radios, including emergency radios used by police officers.
“He has a very closely and strongly held belief that he is telepathic, clairvoyant and can read minds,” Ricke said, noting that Harter has “for a very long time” believed he possesses those powers. “Mr. Harter was under the mistaken belief that he was helping the police.”
Harter armed himself with the shotgun on Jan. 6, 2011 to “go get the bad guys,” Ricke told the judge, before emphasizing that his client is “adamant that he did not intend to harm the police.”
The incident started earlier that day when Strohecker — on duty and in uniform — pulled over Harter, after spotting him driving a red Ford Explorer on Route 213 near Cecilton, the deputy testified. Stohecker made the traffic stop because Harter had a suspended driver’s license, which was confirmed through a computer check, according to the deputy.
When Strohecker had almost reached Harter’s driver’s side door, Harter gestured at him with his middle finger while remarking, “(Expletive) you,” and sped away, prompting the deputy to run back to his marked patrol vehicle and chase the suspect, Strohecker testified .
Off-duty and in gym clothes, Zack joined the chase after hearing the radio dispatches, according to his testimony. Both deputies testified that Harter was driving aggressively and that he intentionally bumped Strohecker’s patrol vehicle with his SUV and attempted to ram into Zack’s car.
For safety reasons, the deputies halted the pursuit and opted to discreetly follow Harter, who drove to his Green Street residence.
Strohecker testified that he saw Harter run from his parked SUV to inside his residence, leaving the door open as he entered, and that he followed as far as that threshold. Looking into the dwelling from that vantage point, Strohecker identified himself as a police officer and ordered Harter to exit, according to the deputy.
Then he saw Harter — armed with a sawed-off shotgun — approaching that door from inside the house, according to Strohecker, who further testified that he gave Harter commands to drop the weapon, which Harter ignored, and that he drew his agency-issued handgun.
“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you’,” Strohecker testified, telling the judge that Harter was pointing the shotgun at his “center mass” and that his finger moved to the trigger.
Zack testified that he was positioned a few feet behind Strohecker and slightly lower than him, because he was at the base of an exterior staircase comprised of two or three steps. Meanwhile, Zack estimated, Strohecker and Harter were only a few feet apart from each other, close enough to grab each other’s guns.
Harter pointed the shotgun downward at Zack’s head at one point, according to Zack, who further testified that he drew his agency-issued handgun.
The deputies testified that they opened fire on Harter, who dropped to the floor and released the sawed-off shotgun.
Harter testified that the shotgun wasn’t loaded, nor was it operable. He insisted that the shotgun investigators recovered on the floor near him — the one that prosecutors entered into evidence during his trial — was not the same firearm, alluding that he was the victim of a police cover-up.
He also testified that the brandishing of the shotgun was done only to scare the deputies, with the hope that the tactic would provide time for him to talk to the law enforcement officers, according to Harter. I have denied threatening to kill the deputies. Harter also denied aiming the shotgun at the deputies, testifying that he believed the shotgun was pointed upward while in his hands.
During his testimony, Harter noted that he respects law enforcement officers.