The Montgomery County Circuit Court building. Credit: Photo by Matt McDonald

A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge is set to consider the latest medical evaluation from the Maryland Department of Health next week in the case of a 27-year-old woman charged with killing her 92-year-old housemate in Kensington last year.

Julia Birch was charged by Montgomery County police with killing noted sculptor Nancy Frankel on July 28, 2021, in a home they shared on Spruell Drive. According to police, Birch told detectives in an interview that she suffocated Frankel to death, and a medical examiner has ruled asphyxiation to be the cause of death.

Birch is seeking to plead not criminally responsible, according to Lauren DeMarco, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. According to state law, a defendant is considered not criminally responsible if at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant “lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of that conduct or conform that conduct to the requirements of law” due to “a mental disorder or mental retardation.”

Family members of Frankel have said the two women met through the Catholic Worker Movement. Frankel’s son, Steven, told Bethesda Beat last year that his mother had been living in her Kensington home for more than 50 years, and Birch moved in about six months before her death in order to keep her company and look after her.

Birch was paying rent to live at Frankel’s home, according to relatives of Frankel.

Birch has been charged with first-degree murder and is being held at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center – a maximum-security psychiatric hospital in Howard County. In February, Montgomery County District Court Judge Aileen Oliver found that she was competent to stand trial. That finding was based on Oliver’s review of a prior Maryland Department of Health (MDH) evaluation, and Birch’s answers to Oliver’s questions during a hearing indicating that she understood the charges against her, could formulate a defense and understood the plea options available to her.

Court records indicate that Birch decided to plead not criminally responsible on April 20, and a trial date has tentatively been set for Sept. 6.

Another MDH report was filed July 25 and a status hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17, according to court records.

Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant will consider the latest doctor’s report at the Aug. 17 hearing, his judicial assistant Lorena Kushida told Bethesda Beat on Monday. The contents of the report are under seal, she said.

Elizabeth Zoulias, an attorney with the county public defender’s office, is listed as representing Birch in court records. Zoulias did not respond to a phone message or email from Bethesda Beat on Monday.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

Dan Schere

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com.