Appeal granted for Felton-area man convicted of drowning wife
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of a Felton-area man convicted of first-degree murder in the drowning death of his wife.
Defense attorney Chris Ferro secured the allowance for appeal by questioning whether a note written by Joseph Fitzpatrick III's wife, Annemarie Fitzpatrick, should have been ruled inadmissible at Fitzpatrick's murder trial.
"We are incredibly excited," Ferro told The York Dispatch. "I have always believed this was our most important and strongest issue on appeal. We are looking forward to the challenge before us and hope we can win a new trial for an innocent man."
The state Supreme Court granted the allowance for appeal on Monday, Feb. 3, according to the court's order.
Just hours before her death, Annemarie Fitzpatrick 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."
Ferro has maintained since trial that Annemarie Fitzpatrick's note should have been ruled inadmissible hearsay and barred from the murder trial.
The background: A jury on May 13, 2015, found Joe Fitzpatrick guilty of murdering his 43-year-old wife.
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, jurors determined.
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 Fitzpatrick, circumstantial evidence against Joe Fitzpatrick included the fact that he was involved in an emotional affair with another woman.
Joe Fitzpatrick had a total of $1.7 million in life-insurance policies on his wife, prosecutors have said.
"We are extremely confident that, just as the Superior Court held on two occasions, the (state) Supreme Court will affirm the defendant's conviction and ind that the evidence against the defendant is overwhelmingly supported his conviction for first-degree murder," York County District Attorney's Office spokesman Kyle King told The York Dispatch on Monday.
First assistant district attorney 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 (Joe Fitzpatrick) asserted they had a happy marriage," Barker has said of the victim's day-planner note and email to herself.
Monday's state Supreme Court order comes about a year after the Pennsylvania Superior Court on Feb. 19. 2019, affirmed Joe Fitzpatrick's conviction and noted there is overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
Earlier ruling: The Superior Court's 11-page opinion stated that while both the victim's email and day-planner note are hearsay, the note was admissible to show the victim's state of mind. That's an accepted legal exception to the hearsay rule in Pennsylvania.
The Superior Court ruled the email was not admissible but determined it was a harmless trial mistake "in light of the overwhelming evidence against Fitzpatrick."
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 Superior Court opinion states.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.