The verdict in the murder trial of Benjamin A. Sifrit, accused of killing a Fairfax City couple vacationing Memorial Day weekend in Ocean City, was reached Wednesday. An April 11 article incorrectly reported the day. (Published 4/13/03)
To lawyers in Montgomery County, the seemingly inconsistent verdicts rendered Monday by jurors in Benjamin A. Sifrit's murder trial were less than shocking. That is because in Montgomery -- where juries are drawn from a pool of generally liberal, well-educated, independent-minded citizens who often are skeptical of authority and insulated from crime -- prosecutors and defense attorneys are accustomed to surprises.
To them, the fact that Sifrit was convicted in one killing and acquitted in another, even though the killings occurred at the same time, was hardly baffling. The split verdicts followed a familiar formula: Twelve individuals, faced with the burden of reaching a unanimous decision, chose the middle ground.
"To me, it has the earmarks of a compromise verdict," said lawyer Paul F. Kemp, who had no connection to the case, in which Sifrit was accused of murdering a Fairfax City couple in an Ocean City condominium last Memorial Day weekend. "It's the nature of the process."
After deliberating about 14 hours over two days, the jury of seven women and five men found Sifrit guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Martha M. Crutchley, 51, but cleared him of all charges in the killing of Joshua E. Ford, 32. Sifrit, 25, also was found guilty of being an accessory to the killings after the fact for his admitted role in dismembering and disposing of the bodies.
"Obviously, it's an inconsistent verdict," said Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, whose office did not handle the case. Sifrit was prosecuted by Worcester County authorities, but the trial was held in Montgomery because of intense publicity on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"It happens all the time," Gansler said of the split decision. "They compromise, and they come out with a verdict."
Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, denied in testimony that he took part in the killings, which he said were committed by his wife, Erika Sifrit, who is scheduled for trial on two counts of murder in June. But Benjamin Sifrit admitted that he cut up the bodies and threw them in the trash. Only some of the remains were found.
Several jurors reached yesterday and Wednesday night declined to discuss the reasoning behind the verdicts, saying the panel had vowed to remain silent about the deliberations.
"We're very proud of the decision we put together," said juror Michael Chmar, 31, a chef. "Convicting anyone of murder is a very, very serious thing. Everyone in that room was an intellectual and a responsible citizen of Montgomery County."
He said their deliberations were thoughtful, respectful and painstakingly guided by the facts as presented by both sides in the trial, and the law as instructed by the judge. He said he and other members of the jury have been e-mailing one another since the trial to reaffirm their commitment to let the verdict speak for itself.
Worcester prosecutors sought to convict Sifrit of first-degree murder of Crutchley and Ford, which could have led to a sentence of life in prison without parole.
They argued that Benjamin and Erika Sifrit killed the couple as part of a perverse game.
Lead defense attorney William C. Brennan Jr. worked to shift the blame to Erika Sifrit, calling her "Crazy Erika" and depicting her as an emotionally unstable person who mixed alcohol, diet pills and anxiety medication.
After the verdicts, Ford's brother and sister-in-law and one of Crutchley's relatives expressed disappointment that the jury did not fully accept the state's case.
Erika Sifrit's attorney, Arcangelo Tuminelli, said yesterday that the state would have had a much stronger case if it had been willing to reach an agreement with his client to secure her cooperation against Benjamin Sifrit.
"What I make of it is that there was little evidence to connect Benjamin Sifrit to that condominium that night, and the state chose not to call Erika Sifrit as a witness," Tuminelli said.
"Montgomery County juries are known to take great pains," said Neil Jacobs, a Rockville lawyer. He said they tend to be skeptical of any allegations, whether made by a prosecutor in a criminal case or a plaintiff in a civil case.