innocence blog

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tiffany Pritchett Goes Free After 12 Years in Prison

This story ran in the Post-Gazette Wednesday, October 11, 2006.
Still denying killing, woman to go free

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
By Bill Moushey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Twelve years after 18-year-old Tiffany Pritchett was sentenced to life in prison for the slaying of an acquaintance, she is set to accept a plea bargain in the killing she still denies and walk free.

Attorney Noah Geary of Washington, Pa., said Miss Pritchett will plead no contest today to third-degree murder, ending negotiations that began before a judge ordered a new trial, citing numerous violations of her right to due process.

Under the deal expected to be approved by Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca, she will accept a maximum sentence of 12 years -- which she has already served -- and later "breathe free air for the first time as an adult," Mr. Geary said.

"She's maintaining her innocence. The sole reason she's doing this is to put this behind her and to get on with her life," he said.

Miss Pritchett's decision was spurred by the fact that she did not have to admit guilt, Mr. Geary said. Also, delays in the appeals process could last years, and Miss Pritchett wishes to be with a grandmother who is in failing health.

The deal was struck between Mr. Geary and representatives of Washington County District Attorney John Pettit.

Mr. Geary said that Mr. Pettit did not want to retry the case, which was replete with lies, subterfuge, hidden deals and more questions than answers about who killed Troy Groomes on a wintry December 1993 night in Donora. Mr. Pettit could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Geary said Miss Pritchett previously turned down two offers for freedom because she would have had to admit guilt.

On Dec. 13, 1993, Miss Pritchett, Mr. Groomes and Dameon Isbell watched a movie at a friend's house, and then walked up a snow-covered hill toward another Donora neighborhood when Mr. Groomes was executed with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.

At the time, Miss Pritchett was a 17-year-old with no criminal record. She was on the run from a group home during a prolonged stay in the child welfare system that began after her single mother became addicted to crack cocaine.

There were no suspects in the killing until four months later, when Mr. Isbell's attempt to rob a Donora Uni-Mart with the gun used to kill Mr. Groomes was foiled by a retired Marine.

Before police could even ask about the gun, Mr. Isbell told them he watched Miss Pritchett use it to murder Mr. Groomes over an alleged rape. When she was apprehended, she denied the rape and said she did nothing other than help Mr. Isbell and another man move the body.

Based on a polygraph test that Mr. Isbell passed and circumstantial evidence that could have implicated any of the three, Miss Pritchett was charged in the murder.

At trial, Mr. Isbell insisted she was the killer, but admitted to several lies. Another witness said Miss Pritchett confessed the killing to her before admitting she had intimate relationships with both Mr. Isbell and the deceased.

That's when Mr. Pettit -- whose office had never lost a murder case -- proposed a polygraph test for Miss Pritchett, assuring Francis Sichko, her trial attorney, that she had "everything to gain" if she passed.

Mr. Sichko allowed her to undergo the test while he attended a Pitt-Temple football game.
With no counsel present, Pennsylvania State Police said she not only failed the polygraph test, but confessed, even though they did not take notes or record the six-hour interrogation.

While she denied the confession and her lawyer argued that it should be suppressed because he was not present, a judge allowed the troopers to testify and Miss Pritchett was convicted.

Still proclaiming her innocence from prison, Miss Pritchett chronicled Mr. Isbell's lies under oath and then found three individuals who made sworn statements that Mr. Isbell admitted the killing and joked about pinning it on her.

After Miss Pritchett spent a decade behind bars, Mr. Geary took the case, and won an appeal based on the new evidence and issues surrounding the confession.

Recently, prosecutors withdrew an appeal of the retrial order and scheduled today's hearing, where Miss Pritchett will be freed.

Now, with a high school diploma and several educational certificates she earned in prison, she is looking forward to reuniting with what remains of her family and hopes one day to go to college, her lawyer said.

(Staff writer Bill Moushey is director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, which investigated Miss Pritchett's claims for more than a year for the series "False Confessions," published in the Post-Gazette in September. He can be reached at bmoushey@pointpark.edu or 412-765-3164. )

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