Court hears motion to suppress in Orange double homicide

  • HART

  • Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith

  • SMITH

Recorder Staff
Published: 12/11/2017 11:05:30 PM

GREENFIELD — Attorneys representing the Athol couple accused of a double homicide in Orange last year grilled law enforcement officials from two states Monday on the methods they used to obtain the defendants’ statements.

In the first part of a hearing to suppress information in Franklin County Superior Court, Brian E. Murphy and Mary Anne Stramm called into question the way Lt. Steven Funkhouser of the Rockbridge County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office and Stephen Bushay of the Massachusetts State Police obtained information from defendants Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith.

Hart and Smith are accused of killing 95-year-old Thomas A. Harty during an Oct. 5, 2016, home invasion at 581 East River St. and causing fatal injuries to Joanna Fisher, Harty’s 77-year-old wife. Fisher died five weeks after the incident, due to complications from her injuries.

Hart, 25, and Smith, 28, also allegedly ransacked the home in search of cash after the attack and fled, taking the victims’ credit and debit cards and the keys to a Toyota Matrix. They were apprehended by the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Department.

Rockbridge Sgt. Scottie Sorrells found them in a rented U-Haul truck outside a Wal-Mart and took them into custody for being fugitives from justice on vehicle larceny warrants out of Massachusetts. Harty and Fisher’s stolen vehicle was recovered elsewhere in Virginia.

Audio recordings of interrogations of Hart and Smith, conducted by Funkhouser and Bushay separately, were played during the proceedings.

Murphy, representing Hart, asked Funkhouser if there was a video recording of his conversation with Smith. Funkhouser said there was not, because his sheriff’s department does not own a video camera. Murphy asked if the department issued him a phone and Funkhouser said he has an iPhone. Murphy asked Funkhouser why he didn’t use it to record video on the interview, and the lieutenant said audio recordings are sufficient for documenting words.

Murphy, referencing the sixth page of a 66-page transcript, asked Funkhouser about his “soft, minimalizing approach at the start of the interview.” Murphy noted Funkhouser encouraged Hart to offer a statement to protect Smith. Funkhouser replied he was encouraging Hart to be honest with him.

“Does minimizing the gravity of a suspected crime get people to talk?” Murphy asked the lieutenant, who replied that encouraging honesty is the most effective interrogation technique he knows and that he tells suspects honesty makes “the system much easier to navigate through.”

Stramm, representing Smith, asked Funkhouser if he was aware that Smith was ill and vomiting when apprehended in Virginia. Funkhouser said he was not, though he acknowledged that Smith complained of intense stomach cramps. In one of the audio recordings, Funkhouser or one of his colleagues can be heard asking Smith if she thinks a cola would ease her pain.

Funkhouser told Stramm that Smith was no in duress during the interview and was “in more emotional pain than physical pain.”

“Are you a doctor?” Stramm retorted before an objection from Chief Trial Counsel Jeremy Bucci, with the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, who is prosecuting Smith and Hart.

Following Funkhouser’s testimony, Bushay took the stand to explain he was investigating a death in Athol on Oct. 6, 2016, when a he received word from a superior about “a serious crime scene” in Orange. He said he arrived at 581 East River St. as an ambulance was ready to leave with an elderly woman he later identified as Fisher. Bushay said Fisher was “alert, aware and knew what was going on.”

Health care workers called the authorities after finding Fisher during a regularly scheduled visit at roughly 9 a.m. on Oct. 6.

During an audio-recorded interview led by Bushay, Hart admitted to the crime and said Smith was present but did not kill anyone. He said they were looking for an older vehicle that would not have tracking technology and saw the elderly couple’s Toyota Matrix in the garage, where Hart and Smith entered the home.

Hart said he entered the kitchen and grabbed “a regular steak knife” off a counter and saw Harty walking in his direction, though apparently oblivious to the intruders. He said he charged at Harty and stabbed him in the neck, pushing back into his chair, where the two struggled.

“I don’t know how many times I ended up stabbing him,” Hart is heard saying. “I didn’t really want him to die, but I wanted him to stop struggling.”

Hart said he then attacked Fisher — who was disabled following a spinal stroke years ago — and pushed her out of her wheelchair.

Hart also said he does not want Smith to pay for his crimes. In a recorded interview, Smith admitted to going to every room in the home looking for money and car keys.

Friends and family members of Harty and Fisher sat in the courtroom, many looked down or shook their heads during the most unsettling parts of the interviews.

Judge John Agostini scheduled the second portion to begin at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 258.
On Twitter: @DomenicPoli


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