Superior Court affirms Felton-area wife killer's conviction
A state appeals court has affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of Felton-area wife killer Joseph Fitzpatrick III, noting there is overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
Fitzpatrick, who turns 46 this weekend, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for drowning his wife, Annemarie Fitzpatrick, in a creek on their Chanceford Township property June 6, 2012.
Fitzpatrick maintains she accidentally drowned when their ATV rolled into the water with both of them on it. He was convicted by a York County jury in 2015.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court on Tuesday, Feb. 19, issued an 11-page opinion in response to defense attorney Chris Ferro's appeal, which argued that two shocking pieces of trial evidence were hearsay and should have been ruled inadmissible — a note and an email, both written by Annemarie shortly before she died.
The York County District Attorney's Office doesn't dispute that the note and email are hearsay but maintain both were properly deemed admissible under the legal state-of-mind exception.
The Superior Court ruled that while both pieces of evidence are hearsay, the note was admissible to show Annemarie's state of mind. The email was not admissible, the court ruled.
State of mind: The state-of-mind hearsay exception applies to the note "because it tended to establish the victim's then-existing belief, i.e., her state of mind, which was relevant to show the ill will that the victim perceived from Fitzpatrick, and, by implication, that their marriage was not going well," the opinion states.
Annemarie's email didn't relate to her state of mind at the time and instead was a recounting of an incident in which she was nearly struck by a large log while her husband was standing atop their pile of firewood, the appeals court said, "which is explicitly excluded by the state of mind exception."
However, the Superior Court determined that while the trial judge erred in admitting the email, it was a legally "harmless" mistake, "in light of the overwhelming evidence against Fitzpatrick."
'Ample evidence': The appeals court then quoted from a prior appeal panel's opinion that "there was ample evidence of Fitzpatrick's guilt" for him to be convicted.
"The prejudicial effect of admitting the email was so insignificant in comparison and therefore it could not have contributed to the verdict," the opinion states.
Ferro said he believes Fitzpatrick's conviction should be reversed and he will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
"I'm hugely disappointed in the Superior Court’s conclusion that this catastrophic mistake was merely harmless error," he wrote in an email to The York Dispatch. "I believe more deference should have been given to Judge (Richard K.) Renn, who presided over this entire trial, and found the Commonwealth’s evidence insufficient. While we are still assessing this opinion and options, I guarantee that this fight to get a new trial for an innocent man is not over."
The background: A jury on May 13, 2015, found Fitzpatrick guilty of murdering 43-year-old Annemarie.
He drowned her 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 addition to the note and email left by Annemarie, circumstantial evidence against Fitzpatrick included the fact that he was involved in an emotional affair with another woman.
Fitzpatrick had a total of $1.7 million in life-insurance policies on his wife, prosecutors have 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.
Chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker has said prosecutors "have no concern whatsoever" that the hearsay argument could lead to a new trial.
"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 has said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.