Durham killing convict files plea

Motion challenges fraud charge count

Staff WriterJuly 20, 2006 

— Robert James Petrick, who represented himself on murder and fraud cases in connection with the death of his wife, has filed a handwritten motion accusing the police, the courts and the lawyer he fired of railroading him into prison.

Petrick's motion, filed from Central Prison, asks a judge to throw out his "no contest" plea to a fraud charge that sent him to prison for at least 11 years. Even if he is successful, Petrick still has to serve a life sentence for murder after a jury decided last year that he was guilty of killing his wife, Janine Sutphen.

Petrick has so far left his appeal of his murder conviction in the hands of a court-appointed lawyer.

The court filings cover many of the same issues that Petrick failed to win in court, such as a claim that police allowed Sutphen's sons to throw out important evidence in the townhouse that the couple shared. And, as he said on the day he decided to represent himself, Petrick wrote that his former attorney wouldn't file a series of motions that Petrick thinks could have gotten the cases thrown out.

Though on opposite sides of the courtroom during Petrick's trial, the defense lawyer and prosecutor seemed to have similar opinions about Petrick's filing.

"It's Robert being Robert," said Petrick's former attorney, Mark Edwards of Durham. "If the law was as Mr. Petrick thinks it is, it would be far more fun to be a criminal defense attorney."

The prosecutor who put Petrick in prison, said he had only skimmed the filing.

"I briefly reviewed it, and I find it to be consistent with his past legal work," Assistant District Attorney Mitchell Garrell said.

The filing continues what has become a long, unusual and unsuccessful quest by Petrick to win his cases without a lawyer in the face of plenty of evidence that he had something to do with his wife's death and disappearance.

Evidence introduced during his trial also shows that while she was missing, Petrick attempted to illegally get his hands on thousands of dollars.

In his murder trial, Petrick argued to the jury that though he was not the type of person you would want to have dinner with, he wasn't a murderer.

Sutphen, a cellist with the Durham Symphony Orchestra, went missing in late 2002 or early 2003. Police suspected Petrick and uncovered a string of bad checks or fraudulent schemes to get money while his wife was missing. Petrick was eventually charged with dozens of fraud counts. In May 2003, fishermen found Sutphen's body in Falls Lake and authorities charged Petrick with murder.

Petrick's plea in the fraud case gave him far less time than if prosecutors had tried roughly 40 fraud cases in succession with the chance for a decade-long sentence in each.

Petrick wrote in his filing that the state's plan was unfair and that Edwards had pressured him to take a deal.

"My plea was both unlawfully induced and made involuntarily without proper understanding of its consequences," Petrick wrote in his filing.

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

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