A York County judge has, at the direction of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, reinstated the first-degree murder conviction of a Felton-area man who drowned his wife in a creek in 2012 and claimed it happened during an ATV accident.
Joseph Fitzpatrick III, 44, then had his life sentence reinstated by presiding Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn during the hearing Wednesday, Dec. 6.
Unlike Fitzpatrick's first sentencing hearing, which happened immediately after a jury found him guilty in 2015, family members of his dead wife, Annemarie Fitzpatrick, spoke in court about their grief and pain.
They included his two daughters, both of whom are now teenagers and are being raised by their grandparents in Maryland.
Sixteen-year-old Emily Fitzpatrick told the judge she enjoyed "a perfectly happy childhood" that turned dark when she was about 11.
At that time, she said, she was angry that her father was being taken away from her and jailed, and distraught that she and her sister were forced to move to Maryland, where they had no friends.
Her mother's voice: Emily said she was "lonely and miserable" for a while, but that eventually things got better. Still, she grieves for her dead mother.
"I don't remember the sound of my mother's voice," she said in court.
Emily told Renn that she had to consider the possibility that her father was "the monster" others had made him out to be. After her own careful review, she said, she now believes her father killed her mother.
But her younger sister, 14-year-old Rachel Fitzpatrick, has a different opinion. Crying and struggling to control herself, Rachel's statement was brief:
"I love you very much Daddy, and I don't believe you did it," she said. "I will always have faith in you."
Kathleen Kessler told the court that her sister Annemarie was kind, generous, compassionate and selfless.
"Family was her priority, and being a mother was her calling," Kessler said.
Special person: Bonnie Vassalotti told Renn that Annemarie could light up a room when she walked in and always put others before herself.
"Annemarie was a special person from the day she was born," her mother said.
Vassalotti said it's been her privilege to raise Emily and Rachel, who she called "true survivors" and wonderful young ladies.
In reinstating Fitzpatrick's verdict and punishment, Renn noted that he doesn't believe appeals courts have yet engaged in any "meaningful appellate review" of the case.
"Today is a hard day. My heart breaks for the families involved," Chris Ferro, Fitzpatrick's defense attorney, told The York Dispatch on Wednesday. "However, today is just a necessary first step to get our strongest appeal issue started. We were successful before, and I am confident we can be successful again in overturning an erroneous verdict lodged against an innocent man."
Legal rulings: In April, the state Superior Court determined that Fitzpatrick's conviction should not have been overturned by Renn and found that Fitzpatrick "committed the murder with the requisite motive and intent."
In September 2015, Renn granted a judgment of acquittal to Fitzpatrick, based on defense attorney Ferro's post-conviction motion that prosecutors had failed to prove Annemarie Fitzpatrick's death was unlawful.
At trial, a forensic pathologist could only say her injuries were consistent with both being involved in a vehicle crash and being assaulted. Proving a death was unlawful is a requirement for a first-degree murder conviction in Pennsylvania, according to Renn's 23-page opinion, which the York County District Attorney's Office appealed.
The Superior Court opinion states that prosecutors did establish she was unlawfully killed and that her husband murdered her.
Fitzpatrick was released from prison for a few hours in September 2015 but was locked up again after the DA's office obtained an emergency stay in the case by the Superior Court.
The background: A jury on May 13, 2015, found Fitzpatrick guilty of murdering 43-year-old Annemarie.
He drowned her on June 6, 2012, in a portion of Muddy Creek that runs along the edge of the couple's 30-acre property in Chanceford Township. Police said he staged the scene to make it appear as if they were riding their ATV when it crashed into the creek.
In explaining his decision to grant the judgment of acquittal, Renn wrote that jurors could not have determined Annemarie's death was unlawful without speculating.
"Perhaps the jury was correct in its assessment, but our system of justice was not founded upon mere suspicions or gut feelings," Renn's opinion states.
Prosecutors used circumstantial evidence to prove their case, Renn noted. But prosecutors in York County regularly explain to jurors that circumstantial evidence can be just as damning as physical evidence and that defendants can be convicted solely on circumstantial evidence.
The circumstantial evidence against Fitzpatrick included notes left by Annemarie that implicated her husband, as well as the fact that he was involved in an emotional affair with another woman.
Also, Fitzpatrick had $1.7 million in life-insurance policies on his wife, prosecutors said.
Victim's notes: Just hours before her death, Annemarie wrote, dated and signed a note in her day-planner at work that said, "If anything happens to me — Joe."
She also wrote an email to herself the same morning, with the subject line "if something happens to me."
It stated: "Joe and I are having marital problems. Last night we almost had an accident where a huge log fell on me. Joe was on the pile with the log and had me untying a tarp directly below."
The night of Annemarie's death, she and her husband ate dinner at their picnic table next to the creek. Prosecutors told jurors that Fitzpatrick physically forced his wife into the water and drowned her.
He then rolled their ATV into the creek and called 911, reporting Annemarie had been driving the ATV, with him on the back, when it went into the creek, according to testimony.
Hearsay issue? While Ferro maintains Annemarie's notes constitute hearsay and therefore should have been inadmissible at trial, chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker said that's not the case.
Barker said prosecutors "have no concern whatsoever" that the hearsay argument could lead to a new trial. He said there's clear case law regarding state-of-mind hearsay exceptions, and Annemarie's notes fall into that category.
"They were introduced to show what her state of mind was — and to rebut the fact that (Fitzpatrick) asserted they had a happy marriage," Barker said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.