False Confessions: Tiffany Pritchett / Won't deal away her innocence
Friday, September 01, 2006
By Elizabeth Perry, Special to the Post-Gazette
On Dec. 13, 1993, Tiffany Pritchett, Troy Groomes and Dameon Isbell watched a movie at a friend's house in Donora, Washington County, then trekked up a snowy hill toward their neighborhood.
According to Mr. Isbell, a gang member at 19, Miss Pritchett then shot Mr. Groomes in the back of the head with a .380 semi-automatic revolver. He said Miss Pritchett, who had no criminal record, sought revenge because Mr. Groomes had raped her.
Miss Pritchett denied the rape allegation and told police she watched Mr. Isbell execute Mr. Groomes in a dispute over drugs.
Miss Pritchett eventually was convicted, based on what police characterized as a confession.
In March 1995, the Groomes investigation was going nowhere when a retired U.S. Marine foiled Mr. Isbell's attempt to rob a Donora Uni-Mart with the gun that killed Mr. Groomes.
Once arrested, Mr. Isbell told state troopers he had witnessed Miss Pritchett kill Mr. Groomes and then stole the gun from where she had stashed it.
Miss Pritchett countered that Mr. Isbell was the one who shot Mr. Groomes. After Mr. Isbell passed a polygraph test, his statement was used to charge Miss Pritchett with murder.
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 had lost custody of her five years earlier. She had never met her father.
Miss Pritchett said in an interview that she didn't point the finger at Mr. Isbell at first because, growing up as she had, "I was always taught that you don't tell."
The case goes to trial
On the stand, Mr. Isbell described himself as an innocent bystander as Miss Pritchett gunned down Mr. Groomes. He admitted to a life of crime but said he had never fired a weapon. Under cross examination, however, he conceded that he had participated in drive-by shootings as a member of the Crips street gang in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Isbell denied being offered lenient treatment in exchange for his testimony, but eventually murder charges against him were dropped and he received a reduced sentence for the attempted robbery. Another witness, Erica Guthrie, claimed that Miss Pritchett had confessed to the killing, but her credibility was questioned after she admitted a sexual relationship with both Mr. Isbell and Mr. Groomes.
At that point, Washington County District Attorney John Pettit, who had never lost a murder case, proposed a polygraph for Miss Pritchett.
Promised that he had "everything to gain" if his client passed the test, Miss Pritchett's attorney, Francis Sichko, allowed his client to be polygraphed while he was at a Pitt/Temple football game.
According to court documents, the testing and interrogation of Miss Pritchett lasted six hours. She said state troopers, who did not take notes or record any of the proceedings, 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 on the stand. Miss Pritchett said she never confessed.
State troopers testified that Miss Pritchett had laughed softly and admitted killing Mr. Groomes. They did not ask Miss Pritchett to write a confession or sign a statement. One of the troopers admitted that he had not written anything about the interview until the next day.
When Mr. Sichko learned of the supposed confession, he asked a judge to suppress her statements because he was not present during her interrogation. The motion was denied.
Miss Pritchett was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Mr. Isbell was released after serving about six years for the robbery. He has had several run-ins with the law since then.
Mr. Pettit did not respond to phone messages or letters seeking comment for this story.
In a 1998 appeal, Miss Pritchett submitted an affidavit from a convict named Darnell Pearson stating that Mr. Isbell had bragged that he had gotten away with killing Mr. Groomes. The appeal was denied.
Years later, attorney Noah Geary of Washington, Pa. filed another appeal. He cited Mr. Pearson's statement 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 a deal: If she dropped the appeal and pleaded guilty to a felony murder count, she would be released.
After days of consideration, Miss Pritchett, who had been imprisoned for 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," said her stunned attorney, Mr. Geary.
In March, a judge reversed her conviction. She awaits a new trial.
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