Galareka Harrison

James S. Wood, Star file photo

A 23-year-old former University of Arizona student serving a natural life sentence will soon be able to argue for a chance at parole thanks to an Arizona Court of Appeals decision.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Scott Rash ordered a new sentencing hearing in the Galareka Harrison case in August because her attorneys failed to obtain her medical records for her sentencing hearing.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office appealed his decision, but the Court of Appeals upheld it late last week.

Harrison was convicted of first-degree murder in the September 2007 death of her UA dorm mate, Mia Henderson, 18.

Harrison stabbed Henderson 23 times because Henderson told university police she had found her UA CatCard and Social Security card in Harrison's wallet, and that $500 was missing from her checking account, prosecutors said. A CatCard is a combination identification and campus charge card.

Appellate attorney Alex Heveri asked Rash to grant Harrison a new trial arguing her original attorneys John O’Brien and Dawn Priestman didn’t properly investigate Harrison’s background.

Had they done so, Heveri said they would have found out that Harrison had a “tortured family history,” eating disorders, was emotionally, educationally and financially unprepared for college and was suffering a near psychotic break at the time of the slaying.

The defense attorneys told a psychiatrist hired to evaluate their client that Harrison had a “full-ride scholarship” when, in fact, it didn’t cover her books, meals or room. She arrived at the UA with only $200.  At the time of the murders, she was taking  diet pills to suppress her hunger and drinking energy drinks.

Harrison’s medical records showed Harrison had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depressive disorder and had sought treatment for extreme anxiety following an incident of domestic violence between her parents. The psychiatrist testified last summer that because he didn’t have the medical records or know about Harrison’s other issues he submitted a misleading report to sentencing Judge Nanette Warner.

At the time of Harrison’s sentencing, Warner, who is now retired, said she would've given the student a life sentence with release possible after 25 years if Harrison had been abused as a child or had a significant mental problem.

Rash ruled it was “reasonable” for the trial attorneys not to seek further mitigating evidence because their client withheld details about her family and so denied the motion for a new trial. However, he granted a new sentencing hearing based on their failure to get the medical records. The apparent inconsistency led prosecutors to file their appeal.

“Although the court did not expressly conclude this failure fell below prevailing professional norms, that finding is implicit in the court’s ruling granting relief,” Judge Peter Eckerstrom wrote.

It remains unclear if prosecutors intend to take the matter to the Arizona Supreme Court or when Harrison will be re-sentenced.

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or

Senior Editor, News, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Az.