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Murder conviction reinstated for Felton-area man who drowned wife
A state appeals court has reinstated a southern York County man's murder conviction in the 2012 drowning death of his wife, which was overturned by his York County trial judge.
Joseph Fitzpatrick III, 44, must now be re-sentenced on his first-degree murder conviction, the appeals court ruled. The only sentence available to him will be life without the possibility of parole.
In an opinion filed Wednesday, the state Superior Court determined that prosecutors established that Fitzpatrick "committed the murder with the requisite motive and intent."
York County Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn on Sept. 1, 2015, granted a judgment of acquittal to Fitzpatrick, based on defense attorney Chris 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.
Not over: Ferro said the fight isn't over.
"For today's purposes, I'm disappointed," he said. "But this is by no means the end of the road on our appeal. This matter was always going to proceed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and I believe our best appellate issue has not even been ruled upon at this time."
Ferro said he believes his strongest appeal issue is on his argument that a note and email left by Annemarie implicating her husband were hearsay and should not have been shown to jurors.
Chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday said the DA’s office is happy with the ruling.
“It’s what we argued from the very beginning, and we are pleased to be vindicated,” he said. “I speak for the entire district attorney’s office when I tell you we are ecstatic that Annemarie Fitzpatrick … and her entire family and children as victims can now close this chapter of uncertainty they’ve been living in over these past two years.”
The background: A jury on May 13, 2015, found Fitzpatrick guilty of murdering 43-year-old Annemarie.
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.
In explaining his decision to grant the judgment of acquittal, Renn wrote that jurors could not have determined Annemarie Fitzpatrick'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.
At best, the judge said, prosecutors showed Fitzpatrick had a motive to kill his wife "and perhaps even specific intent to kill his wife."
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 immediately prior to her death 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 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. 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 simply 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.