Sensational cases not new to Worcester prosecutor

No stranger to sensational cases

Sun Profile

August 02, 2007|By Andrew A. Green and Chris Guy | Andrew A. Green and Chris Guy,Sun reporters

As sweating police officers and FBI investigators sifted through dirt in their grisly search for more remains, prosecutor Joel J. Todd cut a crisp figure in the shadows of the Ocean City crime scene.

He said he didn't want to distract from the police investigation by talking to the media mob covering the story of Christy L. Freeman, a taxi company owner whose home contained the remains of four tiny bodies believed to be her children. But the Worcester County state's attorney prowling the scene for hours wasn't dressed to fade into the background: He wore a white fedora with a green sash and brown pinstriped trousers.

Most of the time, Todd stayed well behind the yellow police tape. But when he came forward to chat with two passers-by, all it took from Todd was one phrase, delivered in a soft drawl, to scatter the lurking television cameras: "I'm talking to my friends now," he said.

Todd, 51, Worcester County's top prosecutor for more than a decade, now faces the pressure of prosecuting a case that has horrified Maryland's famously family-friendly beach town.

But he has been in this kind of situation before.

Four years ago, Todd secured the convictions of Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, an Altoona, Pa., couple who murdered and dismembered another pair of Ocean City tourists, despite investigators' initial inability to find the bodies and conflicting testimony over which Sifrit was the killer.

"He was always basically, `Just the facts,' like Dragnet," said Del. James N. Mathias Jr., mayor of Ocean City at the time. "He stuck to the facts, and he was effective."

With Ocean City rocked again by gruesome allegations in the middle of tourist season, when the community's fortunes rest on its ability to attract families to its beaches, hotels and restaurants, Todd says he's thinking about nothing but the case.

"It's not my job to be the Chamber of Commerce," said Todd, a Democrat whose family has deep roots on the Eastern Shore. "When I prosecute a case, I'm dealing with the facts and the law, not with keeping tourism alive."

Talbot County prosecutor Scott G. Patterson, the newly chosen president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, said high-profile cases such as Freeman's can be a real test for prosecutors.

"You don't want to be a Nifong, out trying a case in the media, but at the same time, the media have a right to ask questions," Patterson said, referring to Michael B. Nifong, the former prosecutor in Durham, N.C., who was widely criticized for pursuing rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players who were later cleared. "Those kinds of cases become extremely time-consuming. Everything gets ratcheted up."

Ocean City authorities filed murder charges against Freeman before receiving a preliminary medical examiner's report that the baby found in her home was stillborn. But that has not deterred Todd.

He has said that evidence indicates Freeman intentionally caused the death of one of her unborn children, violating a 2005 law that makes it illegal to kill a viable fetus. But some of the bill's sponsors questioned whether the law applies: They noted that the statute was intended to broaden the definition of murder to cover an assault on a woman whose fetus was harmed and that it exempts a woman's act or failure to act with regard to her own fetus.

Prosecutors plan to take their case to a grand jury, which will decide whether to indict Freeman. She told a judge Monday that she plans to "clear my name."

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the macabre discoveries last week in and around Freeman's apartment would likely prompt law enforcement officials to presume criminal intent.

"Obviously, it's difficult to imagine how four fetuses got there," he said. "But the law has been murky, even though many states have imposed criminal penalties. There is considerable variation. And even if the fetus was stillborn, there's a question whether it resulted from some action on her part."

Todd said he is confident that investigators will get to the truth.

"The nice thing about working with the Ocean City Police Department is that because they come from a small jurisdiction, they're underestimated by just about everyone," Todd said. "But they have some of the best trained and most effective [officers] from any agency."

The Sifrit case also was a test for Todd and the Ocean City police.

Todd offered Erika Sifrit a plea deal in exchange for help in finding the bodies and for her testimony against her husband. She led investigators to the bodies and offered to take a polygraph test, but Todd backed out of the deal. He said at the time that she began giving testimony that incriminated herself, forcing him to switch tactics.

That decision was the basis of the Sifrits' appeals, but judges agreed that Todd had abided by his agreement. Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, one of Erika Sifrit's attorneys, said Todd acted in good faith.

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