Felton-area man who drowned wife denied appeal on murder conviction

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
  • "It's not over," defense attorney Chris Ferro said Tuesday. "Our best appeal issue is still yet to be heard."

Pennsylvania’s highest court has refused to hear the case of a southern York County man convicted of murder in the 2012 drowning death of his wife — a conviction that initially was overturned by a York County judge.

Joseph Fitzpatrick III, 44, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of first-degree murder.

Joseph Fitzpatrick III

But in September 2015, presiding York County Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn 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 to the state Superior Court.

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.

In April, the Superior Court reinstated Fitzpatrick's murder conviction after determining that prosecutors did establish Annemarie was unlawfully killed and that her husband murdered her.

'Requisite motive and intent': The Superior Court noted in its opinion that prosecutors established that Fitzpatrick "committed the murder with the requisite motive and intent."

Ferro then filed a request to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

On Monday, Oct. 23, the state’s high court issued an order denying the request, meaning it would not hear the case.

Annemarie Fitzpatrick

“It's not over yet,” Ferro told The York Dispatch on Tuesday, Oct. 24. “This was an appeal of only one issue. Our best appeal issue is still yet to be heard. We are in the process of taking steps to get those matters before the appellate courts and remain confident a new trial will be granted.”

Ferro on Tuesday confirmed he still believes his strongest appeal issue is his argument that a note and email left by Annemarie implicating her husband were hearsay and should not have been shown to jurors.

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.

The circumstantial evidence against Fitzpatrick included notes left by Annemarie immediately before 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.

Judge tosses murder conviction of Felton-area man who says wife drowned in ATV crash

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.

More:Murder conviction reinstated for Felton-area man who drowned wife

Hearsay issue? While Ferro maintains Annemarie's notes constitute hearsay and therefore should have been inadmissible at trial, chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker maintains that's simply not the case.

Barker has 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 levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.