OCEAN CITY — Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler last week filed a formal answer to the latest appeal of Erika Sifrit, who, along with her husband Benjamin brutally murdered and dismembered a couple vacationing in Ocean City in 2002, seeking a dismissal of what will likely be the convicted killer’s last attempt at a new trial.
In March, Erika Sifrit, now 34, filed a petition seeking an overturn of her prior convictions and sentences and a bid for a new trial, citing, among numerous other things, her defense counsel at her criminal trial in 2003 failed to highlight her history of mental illness and her dependence on her husband at the time of the heinous crimes. In 2003, Erika Sifrit was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Joshua Ford and second-degree murder in the death of Martha Crutchley and was sentenced to life in prison plus 25 years.
The Sifrits lured Crutchley and Ford back to their Ocean City condo on Memorial Day weekend in 2002 after spending the evening with them at a resort nightclub before brutally murdering them and dismembering their bodies, parts of which were found in a Delaware landfill nine days later. The couple was caught during a botched burglary attempt at a north end restaurant nearly a week later and a trail of evidence led investigators to the scene of the murders.
In the years since, Sifrit has filed numerous appeals and has been denied at each turn. Her latest appeal was filed in federal court in March and seeks an overturn of the convictions and a new trial.
In the latest appeal, Erika Sifrit argues her defense counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate her history of mental illness, failing to mount a sufficient defense to the aiding and abetting charges, not pursuing a voluntary intoxication defense or a not criminally responsible defense, allowing her to waive her right to remain silent and calling Melissa Selig has a defense witness. Selig was nearly snared in the same “missing purse” game employed by the Sifrits before the murders of Crutchley and Ford and Erika Sifrit in her appeal alleges Selig’s testimony was more damning to her case than helpful.
Chief among the issues on which the latest appeal is based is Erika’s Sifrit’s contention her defense attorney, Arcangelo Tuminelli, did not adequately explore her mental illness or her mental state of mind at the time of the murders. However, Gansler last week filed a formal answer to the appeal, asserting an investigation revealed Tuminelli did his due diligence on the mental illness defense.
“Mr. Tuminelli’s investigation of Erika’s prior mental health issues was adequate,” the answer reads. “Erika’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on this ground must be denied. The defense investigation that he conducted was sufficient to rule out the defenses of not criminally responsible and voluntary intoxication, which in hindsight are the only alternative defenses Erika Sifrit could have pursued.”
In his answer, Gansler contends Erika Sifrit’s latest appeal calling into question the effectiveness of her defense counsel is a last-ditch effort paramount to grabbing at straws.
“It is all too easy to second guess counsel’s efforts after they have proven unsuccessful,” the answer reads. “The distorting effects of hindsight must be eliminated given that adverse outcomes can make perfectly reasonable judgments look questionable.”
Gansler’s answer suggests defense attorneys and prosecutors do make errors during trial, but there is often no nexus between the error and the outcome.
“Even if counsel commits a professionally unreasonable error, the defendant must show that there is reasonable probability that but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” the answer reads. “Attorney errors come in an infinite variety and are as likely to be utterly harmless in a particular case as they are to be prejudicial. Indeed, an act or omission that is unprofessional in one case may be sound or even brilliant in another.”
As for the contention Erika Sifrit’s defense team erred in allowing her to enter an agreement with prosecutors, Gansler’s answer was clear.
“Prior to the interview, Erika maintained her innocence,” the answer reads. “Based on that representation, advising her to enter into the agreement was reasonably competent advice. Not only did Tuminelli secure Erika Sifrit protection from sentences of death and life without parole, he provided her with an opportunity that, based on the information she provided him, would allow her to escape without any prosecution for murder.”
Gansler’s formal answer explores each issue thoroughly with cited case examples to reach the conclusion Erika Sifrit’s latest appeal is unfounded.
“There can be no doubt that Erika Sifrit’s claim does not provide a basis for federal habeas corpus relief,” the answer reads.