Convicted Killer Renews New Trial Bid

OCEAN CITY — A little over a month after Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler filed a motion seeking to dismiss Erika Sifrit’s latest appeal, the convicted killer who, along with her husband Benjamin Sifrit, brutally murdered and dismembered a couple vacationing in Ocean City in 2002,  has renewed her 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 renewed bid for a new trial, citing, among other things, her defense counsel’s failure to fully explore her history of mental illness and her emotional dependence on her husband at the time of the heinous crimes. In 2003, Erica 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.

Chief among the issues on which the latest appeal is based is Erika Sifrit’s contention her defense attorney, Arcangelo Tuminelli, did not adequately explore her mental illness or state of mind at the time of the murders. However, in September, Gansler filed a formal motion to dismiss Erika Sifrit’s latest appeal attempt, asserting an investigation revealed Tuminelli did his due diligence on the mental illness defense.

Last week, however, Erika Sifrit renewed her appeal attempt despite Gansler’s attempt at a dismissal, reasserting her history of mental illness prior to the murders and her emotional dependence on Benjamin Sifrit at the time of the crimes, were reason enough to reverse her convictions and gain her a new trial.

“As a result of trial counsel’s deficiencies, the petitioner was found guilty of first-degree murder without any determination of her criminal responsibility, without any consideration of a voluntary intoxication defense and without any consideration by the jury of mental health evidence,” the memorandum  filed this week reads. “The petitioner’s contention has always been that had such mental health evidence been presented, it would have shown that her will was overborne by her husband, B.J., in inducing her to participate in the murders as an aider and abettor.”

Sifrit’s latest bid for a reversal and a new trial alleges had her defense counsel properly explored her mental illness and the “not criminally responsible” defense, the outcome might have been different.

“Adequate investigation of the mental health issues would have resulted in expert opinions that the petitioner was not criminally responsible, a defense to which, to a reasonable degree of probability, would have led to a different result at trial,” the memorandum reads. “Had one or more of those defenses been presented, there is a reasonable likelihood of a different verdict.”

In the latest appeal, Erika Sifrit argues her defense counsel was also ineffective for 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.

In his motion to dismiss the latest appeal filed in September, Gansler said Tuminelli carefully investigated the mental health issues and didn’t explore them at trial because Sifrit and her family wanted to pursue a defense that did not include an admission of involvement in the murders.

“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.”