innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 3 of series: Tiffany Pritchett
Murder in Donora
Series of Lies and Unrecorded
Confession Questions Whether
Justice Was Served

By Elizabeth Perry
Innocence Institute of Point Park University

On Dec. 13, 1993 Tiffany Pritchett, Troy Groomes and Dameon Isbell watched a movie in Donora, Washington County, then trekked up a snow covered hill towards their neighborhood.

According to Mr. Isbell, a veteran criminal and gang banger at 19, that’s when the teenaged Miss Pritchett shot Mr. Groomes in the back of the head with a .380-semi-automatic revolver. He said Miss Pritchett, who had no criminal record, exacted vengeance because Mr. Groomes raped her.

Months later, Miss Pritchett denied the rape allegations and told police she watched Mr. Isbell execute Mr. Groomes in a dispute over drugs.

Virtually the only thing they agreed on was that both of them and another man moved the body to where it was found, frozen, 21 days later. The police eventually believed Mr. Isbell. Miss Pritchett has been imprisoned ever since.

Runaway Life

At the time of the killing, Miss Pritchett was 17-years-old and on the run from a group home. She had cycled through the child welfare system since her crack-addicted mother lost custody five years earlier. She never met her father.

During a telephone interview from the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, Miss Pritchett said she didn’t say anything to anyone about the crime she witnessed because the culture she grew up in taught her to internalize what she saw and what she felt.

“I was always taught that you don’t tell,” she said, no matter what happened.

Fear also kept her silent. Shortly after the killing, Miss Pritchett said she was threatened and beaten by three men, one she described in court as Mr. Isbell’s brother.

Robber to Snitch

For four months, the murder investigation stalled.

In March 1995, a retired U.S. Marine foiled Mr. Isbell’s attempted armed robbery of a Donora Uni-Mart with the gun that killed Mr. Groomes.

Shortly after he was caught and even before police realized the gun Mr. Isbell used in the robbery killed Mr. Groomes, he told state troopers he didn’t do it, but knew who did.

While police and prosecutors say no immunity deal was immediately cut, Mr. Isbell told them he watched Miss Pritchett fire a single shot into the back of Mr. Groomes’ head.

When questioned, Miss Pritchett admitted to being at the scene and helping move the body, but said it was Mr. Isbell who did the killing without her knowledge.

After Mr. Isbell passed a polygraph test, his statement was used to charge her with murder.

Trial and Mr. Isbell’s Error

At trial, Mr. Isbell said he was standing next to Mr. Groomes when he “saw a gun flash” in the corner of his eye, then watched Mr. Groomes fall face down in the snow as Miss Pritchett stood over him holding a revolver.

He said they fled and returned a few hours later with another man to hide the body.

Mr. Isbell said nothing about the murder for over four months because he said the slim Miss Pritchett intimidated him.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Isbell said he used the murder weapon during the robbery because he stole it from where Miss Pritchett stashed it after the killing.

Mr. Isbell not only denied the killing, but that he ever fired a weapon, even though he later admitted to membership in Pittsburgh’s Crips street gang and participating in drive-by shootings.

Mr. Isbell also denied getting a deal for his testimony and prosecutors said nothing – as the law requires – about any consideration Mr. Isbell was to receive. Mr. Isbell’s murder charges were dropped and he was sentenced to 5-10 years in the robbery, which prompted an appeal where he complained prosecutors promised a lighter sentence.

Another witness, Erica Guthrie, said Miss Pritchett told her she did the murder, but her testimony was questioned after she admitted having sex with both Mr. Isbell and the deceased.

At that point, Washington County District Attorney John Pettit – whose office had never lost a murder case – proposed a polygraph for Miss Pritchett.

With nothing more than a promise that he had “everything to gain” if his client passed the test, Mr. Sichko allowed his client to be polygraphed while he was at a Pitt/Temple football game.

According to court documents, the test and interrogation of Miss Pritchett began at 11:00 am, Sat., Nov. 19, 1994 and did not end until six hours later.

She said the state troopers were cordial until after the test, which they said proved her guilt.

“They started banging on the desk and hollering, trying to scare me and things like that, a lot of intimidation,” she said.

State troopers testified after a prolonged interrogation, she began laughing softly and admitted killing Mr. Groomes. Miss Pritchett says she never confessed.

The troopers did not record the statement and did not ask Miss Pritchett to write out her confession or have her sign anything.

One of the troopers who interviewed Miss Pritchett admitted in court he did not write down notes until a day after the interview.

When Mr. Sichko learned of the supposed confession, he asked a judge to suppress her statements because he was not present during the interrogation.

That motion was denied and out of confusion, Miss Pritchett agreed to keep Mr. Sichko as her attorney.

She was convicted of first degree murder and a sentenced to life without parole.

Mr. Isbell was released after serving about six years. There is presently a warrant for his arrest in Washington County for skipping bail on simple assault charges against a child.

Get Away With Murder?

In a 1998 appeal, Miss Pritchett submitted a sworn affidavit from a man named Darnell Pearson stating Mr. Isbell, his former cellmate, bragged he had gotten away with Mr. Groomes’ murder. Her appeal was denied.

After a series legal delays due to lawyers and judges, Attorney Noah Geary of Washington, Pa. filed another 25-page appeal, citing the incriminating statement about Mr. Isbell and among other things Mr. Sichko’s “outrageous decision…to advise his 18-year-old client to submit to a polygraph examination—mid-trial—and then attend a college football game rather than accompany her.”

Last spring, as a judge was considering whether Ms. Pritchett deserved a new trial, the Washington County prosecutor offered Ms. Pritchett another deal: If she dropped her appeal and pleaded guilty to a felony murder count, she would be released.

It was similar to other deals Mr. Pettit has given in murder trials after exculpatory evidence surfaced.

After days of consideration, Miss Pritchett, who has been imprisoned 12 years, declined the offer.

“She said ‘I’m innocent, I want to put it in the judge’s hands.’ If she would have taken the deal, she’d be out right now,” her stunned lawyer said.

In March, a visiting judge granted and she presently awaits it.

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