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Commonwealth v. Fitzpatrick

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 12, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
JOSEPH BERNARD FITZPATRICK, III, Appellee COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
JOSEPH BERNARD FITZPATRICK, III, Appellant

         Appeal from the Order Entered September 1, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of York County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-67-CR-0002534-2014

          BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., SHOGAN, J., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]

          OPINION

          SHOGAN, J.

         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the order granting the post-sentence motion for judgment of acquittal filed by Appellee, Joseph Bernard Fitzpatrick, III.[1] In addition, Appellee has filed a cross-appeal. For the following reasons, we reverse and remand for reinstatement of the jury verdict and judgment of sentence, and we quash Appellee's cross-appeal.

         The trial court summarized the factual and procedural history of this case as follows:

On June 6, 2012, emergency personnel were dispatched to 2288 Old Forge Road in Chanceford Township, which is located in York County, Pennsylvania. EMTs found [Appellee] and his wife, Annemarie Fitzpatrick ["Victim"], down near the shore line of Muddy Creek. [Victim] was unresponsive, but EMTs were eventually able to get a pulse and she was transported to the hospital. A short time later, [Victim] was pronounced dead. Foul play was not suspected and the family began making arrangements; [Victim's] body was sent to the mortician for embalming.
Two days later, on June 8, 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police received a call from Rebekah Berry, who was employed by the same company as [Victim]. Employees at Collectibles Insurance had found a note in [Victim's] day planner that they felt was "suspicious." The note said, "If something happens to me - JOE." It was dated June 6, 2012, and signed "A. Fitzpatrick." Upon request, Ms. Berry was given access to [Victim's] work email where she found an email from [Victim] to 'feltonfitz@gmail.com, ' which was [Victim's] personal [email] account. The subject line of the email stated, "if something happens to me, " and the body of the email read '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." This email was sent June 6, 2012 at 10:30 A.M. Ms. Berry showed police the note and gave them access to [Victim's] email account.
After viewing the note and email, troopers contacted [Appellee] and asked if he would be willing to come in for an interview; [Appellee] agreed. [Appellee] was asked to again explain what occurred the night [Victim] died; he was never asked about the note or email.
On June 9, 2012, approximately two days after [Victim's] death and after the body had been embalmed, an autopsy was conducted. Dr. Barbara Bollinger, the forensic pathologist, determined that the cause of death was drowning. Although she was not asked to opine on the manner of death, she did state that she thought the circumstances were "suspicious."
From the point the handwritten note and email were found, the investigation turned from an accident investigation into a homicide investigation with the prime suspect being [Appellee]. Eventually, troopers discovered that [Appellee] was having a non-sexual affair with a woman named Jessica Georg, and was thinking of leaving his wife for her. When confronted, [Appellee] admitted to hiding [Victim's] phone from the police in an effort to hide this affair. Troopers also discovered that [Appellee] would gain approximately $1.7 million in life insurance if [Victim] were to die. After searching [Appellee's] work computer, troopers recovered two Google searches from around the time of [Victim's] death. The first search, done on June 1, 2012, searched for "life insurance review during contestability period." The second search, done on June 5, 2012, searched for "polygraph legal in which states." This all led to [Appellee's] arrest on March 6, 2014 - approximately a year and a half after [Victim's] death.
[Appellee] was formally arraigned on May 19, 2014, and Christopher A. Ferro, Esquire, entered his appearance on May 22, 2014. The case was assigned to the Honorable Gregory M. Snyder, who scheduled a pre-trial conference for August 18, 2014. After two extensions, [Appellee] filed an omnibus pre-trial motion on August 7, 2014. In that motion he raised several issues, however, because he only raises the issue of the hearsay note and email in his post-sentence motion we will not discuss the other issues. Specifically, [Appellee] argued that the handwritten note and email were inadmissible hearsay and the Commonwealth should not be allowed to present either as evidence. The Commonwealth countered that the note and email were hearsay, but admissible under the state of mind exception. On October 20, 2014, Judge Snyder denied [Appellee's] request, and permitted the Commonwealth to present both the handwritten note and email.
The case was reassigned to the undersigned Judge due to Judge Snyder's reassignment into the Family Division.[2] We listed the case for trial during the May term of trials.
[Appellee's] trial began on May 4, 2015. On May 13, 2015, [Appellee] was found guilty of First Degree Murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment on the same day. On May 22, 2015, [Appellee] filed a timely post-sentence motion. We directed each side to submit briefs in support of their respective positions by the close of business July 1, 2015. [Appellee] filed his brief on June 30, 2015, and the Commonwealth filed its brief July 2, 2015.
After reviewing the briefs, we scheduled oral argument on the sole issue of whether the Commonwealth presented sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that [Appellee] unlawfully killed his wife. That argument took place on August 6, 2015. We reserved decision on all three issues.[3]

Trial Court Opinion, 9/1/15, at 1-4.

         On September 1, 2015, the trial court issued an order denying in part and granting in part Appellee's post-sentence motion. Specifically, the trial court denied Appellee's request for a new trial, but granted Appellee's motion for judgment of acquittal based on the Commonwealth's failure to present sufficient evidence to sustain a first-degree murder conviction. Order, 9/1/15, at 1. Also on September 1, 2015, the Commonwealth filed an appeal. On September 29, 2015, Appellee filed a cross-appeal from the September 1, 2015 order. The Commonwealth, Appellee, and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925. On October 19, 2015, this Court sua sponte consolidated the appeals for disposition.

         The Commonwealth presents the following issue for our review:

I. DID THE TRIAL COURT ERR IN GRANTING [APPELLEE'S] POST-SENTENCE MOTION FOR ACQUITTAL AS THE EVIDENCE WAS SUFFICIENT TO SUSTAIN A FIRST DEGREE MURDER CONVICTION?

Commonwealth's Brief at 5.

         In addition, Appellee presents the following issues in his cross-appeal:

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT, AFTER DETERMINING THE COMMONWEALTH FAILED TO PRESENT SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE EACH ELEMENT OF FIRST DEGREE MURDER BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, PROPERLY GRANTED A JUDGEMENT [sic] OF ACQUITTAL?
II. WHETHER [APPELLEE] WAS DENIED RIGHTS GRANTED TO HIM BY THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION AND PENNSYLVANIA CONSTITUTION WHEN INADMISSIBLE HEARSAY, IN THE FORM OF A NOTE AND EMAIL FROM [APPELLEE'S] DECEASED WIFE, WAS ADMITTED INTO EVIDENCE AND USED BY ...

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