YORK, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man accused of killing his wife and then faking an all-terrain vehicle accident to cover up the slaying almost a decade ago.
The state's highest court ruled 5-2 Friday that 48-year-old Joseph Fitzpatrick III might not have been convicted of first-degree murder in York County in 2015 without the admission into evidence of a note from his wife which the court called inadmissible hearsay that injected “significant prejudice" into the trial, the York Daily Record reported.
Fitzpatrick was accused of having drowned 43-year-old Annemarie Fitzpatrick in a Chanceford Township creek in June 2012 and then telling police they crashed their ATV in the water. Authorities alleged that he wanted out of his marriage, was emotionally involved with another woman and had a $1.7 million life insurance policy on his wife.
Hours before her death, prosecutors have said, Annemarie Fitzpatrick wrote, dated and signed a note in her day-planner at work saying “If anything happens to me — Joe.” She also wrote an email to herself titled “if something happens to me” saying the couple had marital problems and a huge log had almost fallen on her the night before.
“Joe was on the pile with the log and had me untying a tarp directly below,” the email said, according to prosecutors.
The trial judge, in a rare move, set aside the jury verdict, saying prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to support a conviction. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reinstated the conviction, saying the note was allowed as evidence to show the victim’s state of mind, an exception to the hearsay rule. The court said the email wasn’t admissible but ruled that its admission was harmless “in light of the overwhelming evidence against Fitzpatrick.”
In a 47-page opinion for the high court's majority, Justice David Wecht said the note not only reflected the woman's fear but also asserted that her husband would be responsible “if something untoward or violent happened to her.” Offering the note as proof of that would be inadmissible hearsay, and Wecht said it was offered “and repeatedly highlighted" to “establish the truth of the matters asserted therein.”
“The remaining evidence simply was not so overwhelming so as to overcome the note’s enormous impact,” Wecht said. “Accordingly, the admission of the note cannot be deemed harmless.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy said the note could have been allowed to show that the defendant's wife feared him, if the judge read a limiting instruction to the jury, but she would have upheld the conviction even though that was not done.
Defense attorney Chris Ferro called the ruling a “thorough and well written repudiation of the evidence used to secure this conviction,” the newspaper reported.
“We are one step closer to righting a terrible wrong,” Ferro said. “Joe Fitzpatrick is innocent.”
A representative of the York County district attorney’s office said prosecutors were analyzing the high court's opinion.
“We look forward to retrying Joseph Fitzpatrick,” spokesperson Kyle King said.