Judge tosses murder conviction of Felton-area man who says wife drowned in ATV crash
A York County judge has thrown out the first-degree murder conviction of Joseph Fitzpatrick III, who jurors determined drowned his wife in a creek and made it appear as an accident, apparently so he could reinvent his life with his new girlfriend.
On Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn granted defense attorney Chris Ferro his requested motion for acquittal, based on the prosecution's "failure to present sufficient evidence to sustain" a first-degree murder conviction.
The judge granting the motion for acquittal is different than if he had simply granted Fitzpatrick a new trial. It means Fitzpatrick cannot be tried again, barring a successful appeal, Kyle King, spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office, confirmed.
King said prosecutors have already appealed the ruling to the state Superior Court.
The DA's Office did not make chief deputy prosecutor David Sunday or District Attorney Tom Kearney available for comment, instead issuing a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Defending verdict: "We take great issue with Judge Renn's ruling," the statement reads. "Any dispassionate reading of the record reveals that the jury's verdict was not remotely based upon suspicion or conjecture ... and we shall defend this guilty verdict to the full extent of the law."
Prosecutors believe Renn "failed to appropriately consider the facts established ... at trial," according to the statement.
Ferro called his client an innocent man.
"It is an absolute win for the defense — the word 'ecstatic' does not begin to describe my feelings," Ferro said. "It takes a special kind of judicial courage to rule this way at this time."
The next step will be to get Fitzpatrick out of prison, his attorney said.
"We're going to take immediate steps ... to get him out of jail and back with his family," Ferro said. "And based on the judge's ruling and his opinion, it would clearly be unjust to keep an innocent man in jail."
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ferro said he didn't know whether Fitzpatrick had been told of the ruling, but said he was working to "give him the good news as soon as possible."
King said the DA's Office will release a statement sometime Tuesday afternoon.
The background: A jury on May 13 found Fitzpatrick, 42, guilty of murdering 43-year-old Annemarie Fitzpatrick on June 6, 2012. Prosecutors told jurors he drowned her in a portion of Muddy Creek that runs along the edge of the couple's 30-acre property in Chanceford Township.
Fitzpatrick was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ferro had argued prosecutors "failed to prove that a human being was unlawfully killed," Renn wrote in his 23-page order. "We agree with the defendant."
Renn noted he had "some serious misgivings about the jury's verdict." They included that fact that speculation helped jurors reach their decision.
"(I) must conclude that a rational trier of fact, based on the evidence presented by the commonwealth, could not have found beyond a reasonable doubt, without speculating, that there was an unlawful killing of a human being," Renn wrote. "Perhaps the jury was correct in its assessment, but our system of justice was not founded upon mere suspicions or gut feelings."
At best, Renn said, prosecutors showed Fitzpatrick had a motive to kill his wife, "and perhaps even specific intent to kill his wife."
No proof: But the prosecution's evidence "in no way proves" an unlawful killing occurred, Renn ruled, and "the only way for the jury to conclude that Annemarie Fitzpatrick was unlawfully killed would be to speculate that something untoward occurred at the creek."
Dr. Barbara Bollinger, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy of Annemarie's body, testified at trial that injuries on the body were equally consistent with being from an assault or a vehicle accident, according to Renn's opinion.
"The commonwealth was unable to articulate how the defendant got his wife into the water or how he drowned her," Renn wrote.
Prosecutors used circumstantial evidence — including notes left by Annemarie immediately prior to her death that implicate her husband, Fitzpatrick's emotional affair, and the $1.7M in life insurance Fitzpatrick would receive if his wife died — to prove their case, the judge noted.
Victim's words: Just hours before her death Annemarie wrote, dated and signed a note in her work day-planner 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. Chief deputy prosecutor David Sunday 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.
Ferro also maintains Annemarie's email and day-planner note should have been ruled inadmissible at trial because they are hearsay. Common Pleas Judge Gregory M. Snyder ruled them admissible prior to Judge Renn taking over the case.
'Seed' planted: Sunday told jurors it was Fitzpatrick's girlfriend — Jessica Georg — who inadvertently gave Fitzpatrick the idea of how to get his wife out of the way so he could begin his future with Georg. Testimony indicated the two were not having sex, but they were involved in an intense six-week emotional affair that included numerous declarations of love.
In the weeks before Annemarie's death, Fitzpatrick sneaked Georg to his home while his wife and daughters were away, and gave her a tour of the property on his ATV.
Georg testified that while they were down at the creek, she became nervous about the ATV being so close to the 6-foot embankment next to the water and joked that "it would be a terrible time to have an accident."
"That was the seed that was planted," Sunday said. "That's when the defendant ... developed his plan."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com.