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DEFENDANT GRANTED JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL FOR FIRST DEGREE MURDER CONVICTION ONLY TO HAVE IT REVERSED

The PA Superior Court has recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Fitzpatrick, No. 1498 MDA 2015, reversing the trial court’s order granting Fitzpatrick’s post-sentence motion for judgment of acquittal and remanding the matter to the trial court with direction to reinstate the jury’s guilty verdict for First Degree Murder and the court’s original judgment of sentence of life imprisonment.

Emergency personnel found Fitzpatrick’s wife dead from drowning after being called to the Fitzpatrick property for a reported ATV accident into a creek. Although no foul play was initially suspected, police subsequently received information that Fitzpatrick’s wife had left notes in her personal documents indicating that she was concerned that Fitzpatrick might harm her because they were having marital problems. Additional investigation revealed other circumstantial evidence that Fitzpatrick was having an extra-marital affair and thinking of leaving his wife; that he had recently searched his computer for information on the review of life insurance policies during the contestability period; and, that he stood to gain over 1 million dollars in life insurance proceeds upon his wife’s death.

Fitzpatrick was subsequently arrested and charged with First Degree Murder. A jury trial was commenced at which time the Commonwealth presented the above evidence, in addition to the testimony from the woman with whom Fitzpatrick was having the affair. Fitzpatrick was convicted based on the circumstantial evidence presented by the Commonwealth. He was immediately sentenced to life imprisonment.

After conviction and sentencing, Fitzpatrick filed a timely post-sentence Motion arguing, in part, for a judgment of acquittal based on the Commonwealth’s failure to present sufficient evidence to prove each element of First Degree Murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court ultimately granted his motion for judgment of acquittal.

The Commonwealth timely appealed, contending that it presented sufficient evidence at Fitzpatrick’s trial to establish the necessary elements of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon review of the record at issue, the Superior Court concluded that it was “constrained to agree.”

STANDARD TO BE APPLIED FOR A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL

The Superior Court first set forth the applicable standard to be applied: A motion for judgment of acquittal challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction on a particular charge, and is granted only in cases in which the Commonwealth has failed to carry its burden regarding that charge.

The Superior Court is charged with the responsibility of determining, when viewing all the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict winner, whether there is sufficient evidence to enable the fact-finder to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It may not weigh the evidence and substitute its judgment for the fact-finder. In addition, the facts and circumstances established by the Commonwealth need not preclude every possibility of innocence. Any doubts regarding a defendant’s guilt may be resolved by the fact-finder unless the evidence is so weak and inconclusive that as a matter of law no probability of fact may be drawn from the combined circumstances.

Applying the above standard to the case at hand, the Superior Court then outlined the elements that the Commonwealth was required to prove in this case, where Fitzpatrick was charged with First Degree Murder. To convict a defendant of First Degree Murder, the Commonwealth must prove: (1) a human being was unlawfully killed; (2) the defendant was responsible for the killing; and (3) the defendant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill.

Was this an unlawful killing?

At trial, the Commonwealth’s medical expert opined that, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the various bruises and injuries the victim suffered could have resulted from the victim being held under the water in a creek by another person and drowning. The expert also opined that the lack of injuries to Fitzpatrick did not correspond with his rendition of the scene circumstances regarding what occurred at the time of his wife’s drowning. Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that this evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was unlawfully killed by being drowned in the creek.

Was Defendant responsible for the killing?

The Superior Court also concluded that the evidence likewise established that the Commonwealth proved that Fitzpatrick was the person responsible for killing his wife. In fact, it was undisputed that Fitzpatrick and his wife were alone on the property at the time that she drowned in the creek.

Did Defendant act with a specific intent to kill?

As to the remaining element concerning the issue of specific intent possessed by Fitzpatrick, the Superior Court concluded that the Commonwealth presented ample, circumstantial evidence which, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, was sufficient to establish Fitzpatrick’s motive for killing his wife, thereby satisfying the necessary element of intent.

Among that evidence: The couple had an estranged relationship; Fitzpatrick was in the midst of an extra-marital relationship with another woman; and, the existence of over 1 million dollars in life insurance policies upon Fitzpatrick’s wife with Fitzpatrick being the designated beneficiary of those policies.

Accordingly, having concluded that the Commonwealth established Fitzpatrick’s wife was unlawfully killed and that Fitzpatrick committed the murder with the requisite motive and intent, the Superior Court reverse the order granting Fitzpatrick’s motion for judgment of acquittal, and remanded the case for reinstatement of the jury verdict on the charge of first-degree murder and judgment of sentence.

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A25014-16o%20-%2010306260416915807.pdf?cb=1

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