The jury foreman in the trial of Benjamin A. Sifrit rejected speculation that the jury worked out a deal to split the verdict -- clearing Sifrit of one murder while convicting him of another as a compromise -- in the Ocean City slaying case.
Speaking on Friday after Montgomery County defense lawyers suggested that the jury delivered an inconsistent verdict, jury foreman Robert A. Cantor said the split decision was based on the law, the evidence and a thorough review of how each victim died.
"The idea that half fought to acquit, and half wanted to convict on both victims, and we compromised on one -- that couldn't be farther from the truth,'' he said. Other jurors reached last week declined to comment or did not return calls.
Sifrit may have killed both members of a vacationing couple from Fairfax City last Memorial Day weekend, but prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof in one of the deaths, Cantor said. Sifrit and his wife, Erika, both 25, were charged with killing the couple they met by chance in Ocean City.
After deliberating about 14 hours over two days, the jury on Wednesday found Benjamin Sifrit guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Martha M. Crutchley, 51. But the jury acquitted Sifrit of all charges in the killing of her companion, Joshua E. Ford, 32.
Sifrit also was convicted of being an accessory after the fact for dismembering the bodies and throwing them in the trash -- a crime that he admitted while testifying. Only partial remains were later recovered from a Delaware landfill.
The Sifrits' trials were moved from Worcester County because of heavy publicity on the Eastern Shore. Erika Sifrit is scheduled for trial June 2 in Frederick County.
Cantor, a Rockville lawyer who served as foreman on the Montgomery County jury of seven women and five men, said Friday the verdict reflected the jury's view that the state simply did not make a persuasive case that Sifrit killed Ford.
Sifrit's attorneys had highlighted the possibility that Erika Sifrit had initiated the crime and fired the gun that killed Ford, Cantor said. Calling her "Crazy Erika,"defense attorney William C. Brennan Jr. cast Erika Sifrit as a volatile woman who was high on alcohol, anxiety medication and diet pills. Both sides offered plenty of undisputed evidence linking her to the murder weapon.
At the same time, the jury concluded that only Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, could have killed Crutchley without a gun, Cantor said.
"If she died execution-style -- her throat was slashed or her neck was broke -- these suggested a commando-style attack,'' Cantor said.
Prosecutors acknowledged that they could not prove how Crutchley was killed, because only one of her legs was found. In closing arguments, Worcester County State's Attorney Joel J. Todd implied that she might have been stabbed or slashed with a knife used to cut up the bodies.
If there was any compromise, Cantor said, it was that some jurors believed Sifrit guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder in Crutchley's death -- while others thought that Sifrit had been swept up in a confrontation between his wife and their guests.
The verdict pleased Sifrit's attorneys, but prosecutors were stunned. Mark Ford, the victim's brother, stormed from the courtroom after the verdict Wednesday, incensed that the outcome opened the possibility that Sifrit could go free someday. Well before the trial, Todd elected not to seek the death penalty because the victims' families believed death by injection was milder punishment than life without parole. Todd did not return a message seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Brennan was evaluating whether to file a motion seeking a new trial on the basis of an inconsistent verdict. If successful, Sifrit would have another chance at acquittal in Crutchley's death. Double jeopardy protections bar the state from bringing charges against him again in Ford's death, Brennan said.
When deliberations got under way, the jury played a recording of a 911 call Erika Sifrit made about the time of the killings. She said she was alone with strangers, her purse was missing and she feared a robbery -- evidence offered by the defense to prove that she killed the couple in a drug- and alcohol-induced fury.
Also key to the jury's thinking was evidence of how the couple died, Cantor said.
A five-shot, snub-nosed .357 magnum revolver found in Erika Sifrit's waistband at the time of her arrest was linked to bullets taken from Ford's body. Her purse also contained four spent .357 magnum shell casings linked to the gun and one live round of the same ammunition.
Prosecutors, noting that Benjamin Sifrit had purchased and registered the revolver in Pennsylvania, argued that the couple used three handguns interchangeably. But Benjamin Sifrit testified -- and other witnesses bolstered his claim -- that he was carrying a 9mm semiautomatic at the time of his arrest.
As for the state's star witness, the jury believed Melissa Seling's story about an unsettling evening the Delaware woman and her friend spent with the Sifrits a few days after the killings -- during which Benjamin Sifrit allegedly confessed -- but Seling's doubts about what Sifrit said dissuaded jurors from relying too heavily on her account, Cantor said.