Judge Rejects Last Sifrit Appeal

OCEAN CITY – Convicted killer Benjamin Sifrit, who, along with his wife Erika, brutally murdered and dismembered a Virginia couple vacationing in Ocean City eight years ago, had his bid for a new trial denied by a U.S. District Court judge last week.

After exhausting an initial appeal process based on the claim his defense counsel was ineffective during his 2003 trial, Benjamin Sifrit embarked on a different tack in an attempt to get his conviction reversed and gain a new trial when he filed a petition with the Maryland Court of Appeals, arguing the prosecution team, led by Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd, used inconsistent theories of the events surrounding the crimes in order to gain the convictions of both he and his wife.

When the state’s highest court denied the petition, Benjamin Sifrit in September 2008 filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court against the Maryland Attorney General and the warden of the facility were he is serving a 38-year sentence, essentially alleging he is being held illegally and should be given a new trial because prosecutors presented inconsistent theories against he and his wife during their separate trials in 2003.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett last week issued an opinion in Benjamin Sifrit’s petition for a new trial, essentially upholding the Court of Appeals decision.

“The petitioner’s sole claim before this court is that his right to due process was violated when the state presented materially inconsistent theories at Mr. Sifrit’s trial and at the trial of his wife, Erika Sifrit,” the opinion reads. “At Mr. Sifrit’s trial, the state argued the petitioner killed the two victims and was in control of the events surrounding the victims’ deaths. At the subsequent trial of Erika Sifrit, the state argued that Erika killed the two victims.”

In April 2003, Benjamin Sifrit was convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and accessory after the fact for his part in the killing of Martha Crutchley in an Ocean City condominium on Memorial Day weekend in 2002 and was sentenced to 38 years in jail. His wife, Erika, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Joshua Ford, and second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley in a separate trial in Frederick, Md. that same year and was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

The Sifrits lured Crutchley and Ford back to their Ocean City condo after spending the evening with them at a resort nightclub before brutally murdering them and dismembering the bodies, parts of which were found in a Delaware landfill nine days later. The couple was caught during a botched attempt at a burglary in Ocean City nearly a week later and the trail of evidence led investigators to the scene of the murders.

Both Erika and Benjamin Sifrit each argued the state utilized differing versions of the same basic set of facts surrounding the crime in order to gain convictions on both of the accused during their separate attempts at appeal. However, at each level of appeal, the varying courts have ruled the prosecution did not deny the defendants due process because it strictly stuck to the same basic theory that the two acted together in the commission of the crimes.

“None of the differences in the two trials alleged by Erika go to the state’s underlying theory of the case, which remained consistent throughout both trials, which was that Benjamin and Erika Sifrit committed the crimes together,” the opinion reads. “The differences raised are differences in emphasis and inferences regarding certain facts tending to show the guilt of the defendant currently on trial, but in no way exculpating the other Sifrit. Provided the emphasis remains consistent with the underlying facts, the inconsistent emphasis or inferences will not amount to a due process violation.”

In his opinion, Bennett ruled despite nuances in the prosecution’s cases against the two defendants, the underlying theory remained consistent throughout the trials at the Circuit Court level.

“To violate due process, an inconsistency must exist at the core of the prosecutor’s case against the defendants for the same crime,” the opinion reads. “No such inconsistency exists in the present case. From the beginning of both Benjamin and Erika Sifrit’s prosecutions, the government consistently asserted one theory of the case, that both defendants acted in concert to murder Joshua Ford and Martha Crutchley, and that no one would ever know, aside from the petitioner and his wife, what precisely transpired that night.”

In terms of the inconsistent theory of prosecution argument, last week’s federal court opinion exhausts Benjamin Sifrit’s last attempt at an appeal, although he could conceivably attempt another appeal using a different tack. However, that would require going back to square one in Bennett’s opinion.

“The petitioner no longer has any state direct review or collateral review remedies available to him with respect to the claim raised in this court,” the opinion reads. “His claim is exhausted for the purpose of federal habeas corpus review.”