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Erika Sifrit Murder Case: A Refusal to Cannibalize Victims Sinks Claim of Ineffective Counsel?

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 14, 2009 11:08 AM

Although Erika E. Sifrit, who was convicted in the 2002 killings of tourists Joshua Ford and Martha "Genie" Crutchley in Maryland, has been referred to by a prosecutor as "Little Miss Scrapbook" (she kept "souvenirs" of her crimes), perhaps another nickname might be more appropriate for Erika and her husband Benjamin Sifrit. Perhaps, the "Cannibal Couple"? Well, almost, according to court documents relating to her request for a new trial, the AP reports. But it turns out that her decision not to be a cannibal might have come back to, well, bite her.

Reportedly, Erika Sifrit asked for a new trial based on "ineffective assistance" of counsel. What does that mean? As you might be aware, everyone has the constitutional right to counsel in a criminal case. What many people might not know is that not only is a criminal defendant entitled to an attorney, but that attorney also has to perform in a reasonably "effective" manner.

So does this mean that if an attorney makes a mistake a defendant is automatically off the hook? Not by a longshot. In order to be "ineffective", at least for constitutional purposes on appeal, a defense attorney really has to have made a mess of things. Appeal courts looking at the issue first ask whether an attorney was "deficient", and they usually give an attorney every benefit of the doubt, particularly when decisions about strategy are involved. Then, even if an attorney is found to be deficient, a defendant has to show that there's a decent chance the results of the trial would have been different if the attorney hadn't messed up.

In the Maryland tourist killings case, the story noted that Erika Sifrit claimed her attorney botched the job "mainly because he didn't give jurors details about her medical conditions. Those included a borderline personality disorder that clinical psychologist Robert Smith testified rendered her incapable of making her own decisions and choices." However, the judge didn't buy that argument, and her ruling reportedly explained in part that Erika Sifrit had plenty of decisionmaking power in her marital relationship, after all, she "refused her husband's request to cook and eat one of the victims' legs." Imagine that...

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