Fed Judge Denies Erika Sifrit Appeal; Decision Likely Exhausts Challenges

Fed Judge Denies Erika Sifrit Appeal; Decision Likely Exhausts Challenges
Fed

OCEAN CITY — A U.S. District Court judge this week denied what is likely the final appeal of Erika Sifrit, who, along with her husband Benjamin brutally murdered and dismembered a couple vacationing in Ocean City in 2002, bringing some measure of closure to the most vicious crime in resort history.

In 2012, Erika Sifrit, now 36, filed a petition in U.S. District Court seeking an overturn of her prior convictions and sentences and a bid for a new trial, citing, among other things, her defense counsel’s failure to highlight her history of mental illness and the alleged emotional dominance over her by her husband, Benjamin Sifrit, 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 20 years.

On Memorial Day weekend 2002, the Sifrits lured Crutchley and Ford back to their Ocean City penthouse condominium after spending the evening with them at a resort nightclub. The Sifrits then brutally murdered the couple in the condo and dismembered their bodies, parts of which were found in a Delaware landfill nine days later. The couple was caught nearly a week later during a botched burglary attempt at a north end Ocean City restaurant and a trail of evidence led investigators back to the scene of the murders.

In the years since, Erika Sifrit has filed numerous appeals and has been denied at each turn. Her latest appeal, filed in federal court in 2012, was seeking an overturn of her convictions and a new trial on several grounds. However, U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett this week issued his opinion on the petition for habeas corpus, essentially denying what will likely be her final appeal.

“The court finds no need for an evidentiary hearing,” the opinion reads. “For the reasons to follow, the petition will be denied and dismissed with prejudice.”

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The appeal sought a reversal of her earlier conviction and a demand for a new trial on several grounds including a failure on the part of her defense attorney to investigate her history of mental illness and failing to mount a sufficient defense to the aiding and abetting charges. The petition also cites her defense team’s failure to pursue a voluntary intoxication defense to first-degree murder and not allowing her to waive her right to remain silent and submit to an interview.

Finally, the petition calls out her attorneys for calling Melissa Selig to testify as a defense witness, claiming her testimony was more harmful then helpful during trial. Selig was a key witness at trial because she was nearly a victim in the Sifrits’ “hidden purse” ruse just days after the murders. After systematically reviewing each of the grounds for appeal, the judge ruled in his 40-page plus opinion Erika Sifrit has now exhausted her avenues for appeal.

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

The fundamental basis for Erika Sifrit’s denied appeal was the alleged errors of her defense attorney, Arch Tuminelli, to pursue a different approach during trial. However, the federal judge ruled this week the defense did not make any serious errors that could have altered the outcome of her trial.

“A showing of prejudice requires that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial whose result is reliable, and that there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different,” the opinion reads.

Specifically, the appeal contended her defense team did not thoroughly explore her history of mental illness, which could have led to an acquittal, or at least a lesser sentence. However, the judge opined the defense had sufficiently explored the mental illness history and decided against pursuing that possible defense at the wishes of Erika Sifrit’s family.

“The court finds that Mr. Tuminelli’s investigation of Erika’s prior mental health issues was adequate,” the opinion reads. “Erika’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on this ground is denied.”

Next, Sifrit argued in the appeal she was intoxicated and on medications at the time of the crimes and therefore was not criminally responsible. However, the judge ruled her statements following the murders and at the time of her arrest showed she remembered the events with remarkable clarity.

“The petitioner fails to argue how such evidence could have been presented to the jury,” the opinion reads. “Erika’s multiple statements to police, beginning the night she was arrested, show that she had a clear, cogent memory of events. Absent Erika’s own statements, there is no further evidence proffered that could show her level of intoxication.”

Perhaps the centerpiece of Erika Sifrit’s appeal and a recurring theme during trial is that she was emotionally dominated by Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, and deferred to his wishes before, during and after the murders. However, in his opinion, the judge pointed out the evidence suggests it was likely Erika who wore the pants in the family.

“Additional examples of Erika exercising control in the relationship are found in her own statement to detectives,” the opinion reads. “In that interview, Erika admits that she refused to take BJ’s pictures holding the heads of the dismembered bodies, refused to cook and eat a leg after the murders, refused to help him put the bodies in the dumpster, refused to help him move a bag with a torso, and refused to look at the dead bodies when he calls to her after the murders,” the opinion reads. “She also ordered him to clean up the blood, continued to take photographs in the days following the murders and refused to help BJ kill her family and abscond with their money.”

Back to the not criminally responsible claim, the judge opined the evidence clearly shows Erika was aware and in control of her faculties during the heinous murders.

“Ms. Sifrit was realistically aware of the events taking place around her, and by her own report did make decisions that were deliberate,” the opinion reads. “Further, by her own report, her use of alcohol and Xanax at the time of the current offense did not impair her ability to realistically perceive her environment or make decisions that were deliberate.”

Following the arrests, Erika Sifrit entered a conditional agreement with the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office to help Ocean City Police detectives find the bodies and begin to build a case against her husband. However, that agreement was declared void when Erika made several statements during the pre-polygraph interviews that implicated her in the murders.

“After she told us that she had said ‘just [expletive deleted] do it,’ she stopped for a moment during the interview and said ‘now you have me on murder,” the opinion reads.

At a different point in the interview, Erika Sifrit admitted cutting the female victim with knife and again, after pausing for a moment said again “now you have me on murder.” Another pillar of Erika’s appeal was that prosecutors used slightly different version of the same basic facts to gain convictions for both Sifrits. The federal judge said in his opinion the two trials were handled appropriately.

“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 committed the crimes together,” the opinion reads. “The differences raised are differences in emphasis and inferences regarding certain facts tending the show the guilt of the defendant currently on trial, but in now exculpating the other Sifrit.”