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Lancaster Co. mother faces 11 to 22 years in prison for death of infant son

Jessica Harper

LANCASTER COUNTY — A Peach Bottom woman pleaded no contest Monday to third-degree murder regarding the death of her infant son, who suffocated as he slept in July 2016.

Jessica Marie Harper, 30, will serve 11 to 22 years in prison for the July 12, 2016, death of the 2-month-old boy. The boy died at Harper’s home in the 2600 block Robert Fulton Highway, Fulton Township.

An autopsy determined the boy died of asphyxiation as he slept in a bed with his mother.

In exchange for the sentence, Harper pleaded no contest Monday to third-degree murder and endangering a child, in accordance with a plea agreement arranged by Assistant District Attorney Fritz Haverstick.

Lancaster County Judge Margaret Miller accepted the plea terms and ordered sentence.

A defendant who pleads no contest doesn’t admit guilt, but a no-contest plea has the same legal effect as a guilty plea.

The boy was Harper’s second child to die of asphyxiation. Another son, also a 2-month-old, died in Maryland in 2011 after being left to sleep on a couch.

While accepting the plea terms, Judge Miller said Harper pleading no contest was “unimpressive,” calling it “a step away from true accountability and true acceptance.”
Judge Miller said that Harper not changing her parenting style after the first baby’s death “simply floors me.”

Haverstick pointed out that medical professionals – and social services workers – repeatedly told Harper that co-sleeping was dangerous for a child.

On one occasion, Harper told a physician’s assistant, “I understand. I am going to co-sleep anyway.”
The child died about a week later.

Haverstick said Harper co-slept with the child almost every night, at least. A crib that was to be for the boy was filled with items, indicating it was not being used.

Harper said her attitude has changed and that she loves her children, including the two who died.

“My kids mean the world to me,” Harper said.

Judge Miller said Harper “knew it was unsafe” to have the infant sleep with her in a bed.

“You knew it from before,” the judge said. “But no, you knew better, and no one could tell you different.

“Well, it has taken two dead babies… for you to finally, I hope, accept that you don’t always know better.”

Judge Miller said Harper’s remaining children will have better guidance from caregivers since they were re-located.

“I am glad they will not be in your care and custody,” the judge said.

Third-degree murder is a killing with malice, but without intention and premeditation, as required in first-degree murder. In this case, Harper exhibited a willful disregard of the grave risk her conduct posed to her child.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Linda Gerow filed charges. Trooper Gerow and Trooper Chad Roberts, who assisted in the investigation, were present in court Monday.

Source: Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office