Jury finds Petrick guilty in 2003 slaying of his wife

He spurned plea deal earlier, will serve life term

Staff WriterNovember 30, 2005 

  • Audio: Closing arguments

    Excerpt from Robert Petrick's closing argument.

    Robert Petrick's complete closing argument.

    Excerpt from prosecution's closing argument by Assistant D.A. Mitchell Garrell: "At some point these coincidences become circumstantial evidence."

    Excerpt from the prosecutor's closing argument: "We are not required to prove this case to a certainty."

    Excerpt from the prosecutor's closing argument: "Return a verdict of guilty."

    WRAL and WTVD assisted in the production of this audio.

Robert James Petrick believed so strongly that he could beat a murder charge that he fired his lawyer and rejected a plea deal that could have set him free in less than 15 years.

On Tuesday, he was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife, Janine Sutphen, in 2003. Now he must spend the rest of his life in prison.

Sutphen's sons hugged one another in the front row behind the prosecution's table when they heard the verdict.

"It's over," said Darren Sutphen. "There it is," Christopher Sutphen said. "Done," said Robin Sutphen.

After more than two weeks of testimony, a Durham County jury needed a little more than two hours to decide that the state had proved its theory -- Petrick strangled his wife in January 2003 after a confrontation over either an affair or the money he had taken from her. For weeks, Petrick told people his wife couldn't come to the phone while he planned his next move.

Prosecutors said he eventually dumped her weighted body in Falls Lake and then reported that she had failed to return from a symphony practice. Fisherman found her body in Falls Lake five months later.

The sons already knew all that. There was plenty of evidence, and by most accounts Petrick did a horrible job defending himself. The three men had come to Durham for something else.

They wanted to know just what Petrick had done, and why. And they wanted to hear him express some remorse for killing their mother, an outgoing woman who played the cello in Durham's nonprofit symphony.

They never got what they wanted.

They watched Petrick cross-examine witnesses and fight the prosecutor over the evidence against him. And on the trial's last day, they heard him argue that he was the scapegoat for the Durham Police Department, which needed to save face in the death of a woman who had complained about safety near the symphony's downtown rehearsal hall.

"The police had promised something, and that wasn't followed through on," Petrick said. "Then I was arrested. It was a domestic crime, and they were off the hook."

And though at times he strongly argued that the state couldn't prove his guilt, Petrick never said he was innocent.

'Not good enough'

"I wish it would be simple enough for me to simply stand up here and say, 'I didn't do it, believe me,' " Petrick told the jury Tuesday. "But that's not good enough. Frankly, that's what anyone in my position would say."

Jurors declined to discuss the case afterward.

Throughout the trial, Sutphen's sons grimaced or glared as they listened to Petrick.

"He's not going to admit to anything," said Darren Sutphen, 39, a painting contractor. "It's very frustrating that all this goes on on his terms. ... There's no justice for us. There's justice for him."

There was a time when Sutphen's sons thought Petrick killed their mother in a moment of passion. They thought Sutphen had discovered that Petrick had cleaned out their bank account and then forged a check to try to hide the crime. They thought she confronted him and he snapped.

The Sutphens had agreed to a deal that allowed Petrick to plead guilty to murder and scores of fraud cases and serve a total sentence of a little more than a dozen years. But the offer came with a price. Petrick would have to tell them, in private, what he had done and why. Petrick decided to take his chances with a jury.

When the Sutphens came to Durham for the trial, they learned the crime might not have been committed in the heat of the moment. Data buried in Petrick's computers suggested that he began researching ways to kill months before Sutphen died. And those computers showed that he used his computer to solve the problems of keeping a body in his house for two weeks.

"He shows no remorse for what he did," said Christopher Sutphen, 25, a computer engineer.

As the evidence piled up, the focus was usually on Petrick and his behavior. Sutphen was often referred to as "the victim" by the state or "my wife" by Petrick.

1999 meeting

Janine Sutphen, a strong, independent woman, met Petrick in 1999 at a church in Durham. It was four years after her previous husband, Chazz Sutphen, father of her sons, died. She was lonely, her friends and family said. She had few, if any, serious relationships until Petrick.

He seemed to make her happy, and they appeared to be a good match, her sons said. But it was an act.

For most of his adult life, Petrick had moved from woman to woman, talking his way into their lives and beds, according to testimony. Petrick has a high school education, but his IQ seems above average, and he is conversant on lots of subjects, those who knew him said. At times, he pretends to be European and pronounces the word "schedule" with a soft "c" as the British do. He claimed to have a degree that he doesn't.

He often was drawn to vulnerable people, Sutphen's sons and Petrick's ex-girlfriends testified during the two-week trial.

"Was he just lying when he said he loved her?" said Robin Sutphen, 27, a seminary student. "There's a part of me that wants to believe that not every ounce of his soul is evil."

Feelings near surface

But the Sutphens, at times, could not contain their feelings about Petrick. When the court was not in session they spoke loudly about the evidence, joked around and on occasion mocked Petrick. At times, the brothers meowed like a cat, mimicking Petrick's suggestion that the dog was reacting not to the scent of death, but to the cats under the bed.

It was how Petrick defended the case, focusing on details but never offering an alternative to the prosecution's theory.

But even after the verdict, even after all 12 jurors individually said they had voted to convict Petrick, he refused to give in.

Before Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson sentenced Petrick to a life behind bars, the judge gave him a chance to speak.

"I move that the verdict be set aside, your honor. I feel the evidence doesn't support a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder," Petrick said. The Sutphens chuckled.

Hudson disagreed and ordered deputies to take Petrick to prison. Petrick gave notice of appeal. This time, he told the judge, he wanted a lawyer.

(Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or bniolet@newsobserver.com.

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