Sifrit’s latest bid for new trial rejected

A Hollidaysburg-area woman serving life plus 20 years for the brutal murder of an Alexandria, Va., couple while vacationing in Ocean City, Md., 13 years ago has lost her latest bid for a new trial.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Baltimore has dismissed Erika Sifrit’s request for a review of her case.

A three-judge panel stated last week that the U.S. district judge who heard and rejected Sifrit’s appeal, Richard D. Bennett, refused to issue a “certificate of appealability” that would allow the case to proceed to the 4th Circuit.

Sifrit and her current attorney, Robert W. Biddle of Baltimore, are not out of options. They can request a review of the order by a larger panel or, within 90 days, ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter.

Biddle could not be reached for comment.

Erika Sifrit and her husband, Benjamin, were arrested for the murders and dismemberment of Martha Crutchley and Joshua Ford, a Virginia couple they met on Memorial Day weekend 2002.

A spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General David Nitkin said of the decision dismissing Erika Sifrit’s appeal, “We believe justice has been served, and we hope that the 4th Circuit decision brings closure to the family and friends of Martha Crutchley and Joshua Ford.”

On the night of May 25, 2002, the couples partied at Seacrets, an Ocean City nightclub, and then went back to the Sifrits’ condominium that was owned by a Blair County contractor.

The prosecution contended that the Sifrits played what they called the “missing purse game,” a scenario, which testimony showed, the couple had done on at least one other occasion.

Erika, it was charged, pretended she could not find her purse. Benjamin, a former Navy SEAL, accused the Virginia couple of stealing Erika’s purse. He brandished a gun, according to the prosecution theory.

When the Virginia couple took refuge in the condo’s bathroom, they were murdered.

The Sifrits then dismembered the bodies and disposed of them in a dumpster.

While associates of Crutchley and Ford desperately sought their whereabouts in the days after the murders, the Sifrits almost made it back to the Altoona area, leaving few clues behind.

But on their exit from Ocean City, the couple stopped to burglarize a Hooters restaurant, and police came.

At the trial in 2003, police said Erika suffered an anxiety attack while they investigated the burglary. She asked an officer to retrieve medication in her purse, at which point an officer discovered the identifications of the dead couple.

Benjamin was convicted of second-degree murder and ended up with a 38-year sentence. Erika went to trial and was convicted of first-degree murder. Both were also convicted of the burglary at Hooters, among other charges.

In her appeal, Erika and her attorney attempted to convince a federal judge that her trial attorney, Arcangelo Tuminelli, did not explore possible mental health defenses for Erika to show she was not criminally responsible for what occurred on the night of May 25, 2002.

In the appeal, Erika, a former high school and college basketball player, was depicted as suffering from personality disorder, a dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression and alcohol and drug abuse.

In a 55-page opinion, the federal district judge pointed out that Tuminelli both before trial and sentencing had Erika examined by experts but did not pursue a mental health defense because Erika insisted she was not present when the couple was murdered by her husband.

She contended she was innocent of the murders.

The federal judge concluded, “The court is unpersuaded that (Tuminelli’s) investigation was below par.”

Another major point of appeal was that the prosecution presented different theories of the case depending on who was on trial.

That point also was rejected by the federal judge, indicating that the prosecution may have emphasized different points in each case, but the theory of the case never changed, “which was Benjamin and Erika committed the crime together.”

The district judge said nobody except Erika and Benjamin knows what happened that night but noted, “What the prosecution consistently demonstrated was (Erika) and (Benjamin) Sifrit worked in concert murdering the victims and covering up the crime.”

The appellate judges stated they reviewed the record of the case and concluded Erika Sifrit did not meet the criteria for further review by the circuit court.