Attorney seeks release of Felton-area man exonerated of wife's drowning death
After getting client Joseph Fitzpatrick III's first-degree murder conviction thrown out this week, York defense attorney Chris Ferro is now trying to convince a judge to release Fitzpatrick from prison.
Ferro on Wednesday afternoon filed a motion in York County Court seeking Fitzpatrick's immediate release or, short of that, asking that bail be set in the case.
On Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn overturned Fitzpatrick's conviction and granted Ferro's requested motion for acquittal, based on the prosecution's "failure to present sufficient evident to sustain" a first-degree murder conviction.
The ruling means, barring a successful appeal, Fitzpatrick cannot be tried again.
Prosecutors have already appealed the ruling to the state Superior Court, according to Kyle King, spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office.
On Wednesday afternoon, King said prosecutors had no comment about Ferro's motion.
Presumed innocent: Ferro's latest motion argues that Fitzpatrick now enjoys a presumption of innocence.
"Moreover, based upon the court's ruling, the defendant is not guilty of the charge of first degree murder and discharged from further proceedings associated therewith," the motion states. "The commonwealth's appeal of the court's acquittal has no substantive bearing on the current status of the case just as an appeal by the defendant of the guilty verdict would not have invalidated the sentence imposed by the court.
"The defendant, as a result of this honorable court's order, should be immediately released from custody," the motion states.
But if Renn disagrees, Ferro's motion provides him with a second option by arguing that Fitzpatrick is at least entitled to bail pending the outcome of the prosecution's appeal.
Renn has the option of simply issuing a ruling. He also could give the prosecution a chance to file its own motion in response, or he could schedule a hearing for oral argument.
Ferro's motion argues that if Fitzpatrick is required to remain in prison pending the outcome of the prosecution's appeal, he might "very well wind up serving more than five years in jail for an offense which the commonwealth failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt."
The background: A jury on May 13 found Fitzpatrick, 42, guilty of murdering 43-year-old Annemarie Fitzpatrick.
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 on June 6, 2012, and that he staged the scene to make it appear as if they were riding their ATV when it crashed into the creek.
Fitzpatrick was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But Ferro filed a motion asking Renn to overturn that conviction, arguing in part that prosecutors "failed to prove that a human being was unlawfully killed," Renn wrote in his 23-page order overturning the verdict. "We agree with the defendant."
Renn's decision, handed down Tuesday, noted he had "some serious misgivings about the jury's verdict." They included the 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."
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 to prove their case, the judge noted, including notes left by Annemarie immediately prior to her death that implicate Fitzpatrick; the fact that he was involved in an emotional affair with another woman; and the $1.7 million in life insurance Fitzpatrick would receive if his wife died.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org.