Was Morgan Harrington’s Death Accidental?

Somewhat lost in the hubbub of the back-to-back (-to-back) snowstorms of the past few days is the press conference held by the Virginia State Police in the Morgan Harrington case last Thursday. As the snowstorm bore down on a nervous town that afternoon, the police were holding what struck me as a rather unusual press conference. The nut of the event was that Harrington’s death is being treated as a homicide, and that police want to relay “six key points” to the public. In a press release (Word file), they enumerate them as follows:

1. The person responsible may or may not have a formal connection to Anchorage Farm where Morgan was recovered, but investigators believe the person(s) responsible is likely to have traveled, worked, recreated, or lived in close proximity to this farm or some other nearby property.

2. The person(s) responsible in this tragic incident may have been inclined to return to the farm location during a period of increased stress.

3. Investigators are confident that persons, through no fault of their own, know the person(s) responsible or have knowledge of specific instances whereby the person(s) responsible visited or traveled through the general location of where Morgan’s remains were recovered.

4. Investigators believe the person(s) responsible had specific knowledge, and was comfortable operating in the area, which is a considerable distance from the nearest roadway.

5. This choice of location is quite different from the decision to leave a body on or adjacent to a major public roadway, or some other area accessed with little or no risk.

6. Traveling to the Anchorage Farm location would have created a significant risk for any person unfamiliar with the area, and not comfortable to this type of setting. Farmland like the place where Morgan’s body was discovered presents difficult obstacles such as fences, streams, and difficult terrain variations – such challenges a person unfamiliar with this particular location would most likely have avoided.

Maybe I’m reading too much into these, but there are a few things about this that strike me as odd. The VSP don’t call her death a “murder,” but instead refer to it as “this tragic incident”. The only time that they even classify the nature of Harrington’s death is in the second paragraph, in which they say that her “death is being investigated as a homicide.” They also don’t refer to her killer, or her murderer, but simply as “the person(s) responsible in this tragic incident.” Not responsible for, but responsible in. They also emphasize—indeed, it appears to be the point of this statement—that persons (plural, no parentheses around the “s”) “through no fault of their own, know the person(s) responsible.” Well, yeah, of course: everybody’s known by other people. There must be some reason that they’re pointing this out. They’ve even established a special telephone number (434-709-1685), not for the Harrington case, but for “information specifically related to the Anchorage Farm property,” which seems like an awfully specific reason for a special telephone number. The one thing conspicuously absent from their press conference was any information about how Harrington was killed. The autopsy has been finished. Her funeral has been held. Anything that the VSP knows about how she died has been learned, but that information is being withheld, surely deliberately.

Here is, interestingly, the Code of Virginia’s definition of “homicide”:

The killing of one accidentally, contrary to the intention of the parties, while in the prosecution of some felonious act other than those specified in §§ 18.2-31 and 18.2-32, is murder of the second degree and is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than five years nor more than forty years.

Looking at §18.2-31 and §18.2-32, which define capital murder and first and second degree murder, you’ll find all sorts of horrible ways to die, which includes the bulk of the ways that people surely fear that Harrington died. Killing somebody while robbing them, murder for hire, killing somebody after raping them, killing somebody after imprisoning somebody, killing somebody after “lying in wait” for them, premeditated killing, etc., etc. The definition of homicide makes perfectly clear that the death has to be accidental while doing something else illegal, but not so seriously illegal that it’s capital, first, or second degree murder. (For instance, I suppose that a fraternity initiation gone wrong might result in a charge of homicide.) It’s not even considered murder. It’s possible that they start by charging somebody with homicide and then upgrade the charges to murder as they go—using an umbrella term of homicide meaning, basically “somebody died and it’s somebody else’s fault”—but after reading a handful of stories about murders in Virginia over the past few years, I don’t think that’s the case, but I’m far from certain. Though even if it is just an umbrella term, this delicate phrasing by the VSP makes me doubt whether they think it’s murder in the legal sense.

Now, Lord knows I’m no expert in this field, but I think that two things have come together here. The first is the possible signal from the VSP that Harrington’s death was accidental. The second—which involves a real leap of logic—is that this odd series of six points looks to me like a dog whistle press release. It’s meant for just a small number of people to understand. (“Persons” plural, remember?) The VSP believe that there are people who were witness to, had foreknowledge of, or likely learned afterwards of Harrington’s accidental death. (To use our fraternity example, other pledges, or perhaps existing members of the frat.) By not using the word “murder,” by saying “responsible in this tragic incident” and not “responsible for her death,” I think they’re telegraphing the message hey, we know it was an accident—just reach out to us, we’ll understand while trying not to let on to the public that this may have just been an accident. Why? Because a murder is a big deal: it stays in the news, it gets people talking, it triggers a primal response of fear, and it’s more likely to churn up tips. But an accidental death is a tragedy that’s quickly forgotten, that may result in Harrington’s death remaining unsolved.

Like I said, I’m no expert, and I’ve take some leaps of logic here. I’m hoping that some folks familiar with law enforcement can weigh in, my fellow armchair forensics officers and pop linguists can suggest where I’ve gone terribly wrong (or right). I do think it’s clear that this six-points press release is unusual in a way that should tell us something, accidental death or otherwise. But what?

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