Jury begins deliberations in Orange double slaying

  • Joshua Hart is shown in Franklin County Superior Court during his murder trial this week. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • The late Thomas Harty and Joanna Fisher of Orange are shown in family photos. Contributed photos

For the Gazette
Published: 4/12/2018 9:53:05 PM

GREENFIELD — With all the evidence on the table, and having heard closing arguments, a Franklin Superior Court jury began deliberations Thursday in the murder trial of Joshua Hart.

Hart, 25, of Athol, is accused of killing Thomas Harty, 95, and fatally wounding his wife, Joanna Fisher, 77, during an Oct. 5, 2016, invasion of their home on Main Street in Orange.

Hart, along with his co-defendant, Brittany Smith, 29, of Athol, has pleaded not guilty. Smith is to be tried separately, beginning April 23.

The jury, consisting of seven women and five men, deliberated for approximately three hours Thursday, and will reconvene at the Franklin County Justice Center at 9 a.m. Friday.

“You have an awesome responsibility,” Judge John Agostini told the jury.

The jury must be unanimous in finding Hart guilty or not guilty to any of the charges, which include armed robbery, motor vehicle theft and fraudulent use of credit cards, in addition to the murder charge.

If found guilty of murder in the first degree, which the prosecution has asked for, Hart faces a mandatory life sentence in state prison without the possibility of parole.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Jeremy Bucci, of the Northwestern district attorney’s office, outlined the aggravating circumstances he said make Hart guilty of murder in the first degree.

“He came in armed,” said Bucci, arguing the crime was premeditated.

Along with premeditation, Bucci said the killings were “extremely cruel and atrocious” and occurred during the execution of another felony, armed robbery, warranting a conviction of first-degree murder.

Hart allegedly stabbed Harty multiple times, including three times in the heart. He also allegedly held a pillow over the man’s face until he stopped moving, then stabbed Fisher, who was already being attacked by Smith, according to the prosecution.

Fisher died a month later, on Nov. 10, from pneumonia likely triggered by torso wounds suffered in the attack. She was allegedly thrown from her wheelchair, which she used in her recovery from a spinal stroke, to the floor before Hart stabbed her and stood on her chest

“This was, at its core, a joint venture,” said Bucci, alleging that Smith and Hart are guilty, together, of each of the crimes committed. “At all times, they acted in concert.”

Hart and Smith had been arrested two days before the home invasion for car theft. The prosecution alleges Hart, who had warrants for his arrest out of Pennsylvania, and Smith, a heroin addict on the verge of being court-ordered into rehab, wanted to run away together with the victims’ car and credit cards to escape the consequences of their prior arrest. They were apprehended in Rockbridge County, Va., having been tracked by Massachusetts State Police.

“Thomas Harty gave the defendant a fight,” Bucci said. “(The fight) produced evidence, proving his guilt.”

Hart, in a recorded interview with police, confessed to killing Harty and said his rosary beads were ripped from his neck during the fight. Those beads were found and photographed at the crime scene next to Harty’s body — in the same location Hart indicated during his taped confession.

The sweatshirt Hart wore during the alleged attack was also found to have Harty’s blood on it, Bucci said in his closing argument. A bloody footprint of the same type of shoe Hart was wearing during the alleged attack was also found at the crime scene.

“This is a mountain of evidence as immovable as the mountains that Thomas Harty climbed,” Bucci said.

Harty had been planning a hiking trip at the Grand Canyon, his eighth, with a friend that October.

Defense attorney Brian E. Murphy, during his closing argument, explained why he had few or no questions for many of the witnesses.

“What (Hart) did was criminal, what he did was horrible and what he did was callous, but what he did was not murder,” Murphy said. “We (the prosecution and defense) agree on the vast majority of what happened here.”

Murphy told the jury he disputes nothing that happened leading up to the home invasion and nothing that occurred after the home invasion. He brought into question what happened during the home invasion.

Murphy asserted that Smith, “a crazed drug addict,” committed the murders, that Hart, madly in love with Smith, helped her “clean up” and run away and that Hart’s confessions to police were false and given to protect Smith.

Murphy highlighted the fact that no murder weapon has been found, and there is no DNA or fingerprint evidence against Hart, while there is such evidence against Smith. He also noted that Fisher subsequently identified her attacker as female.

“One person who can surely be believed without question is Ms. Fisher,” Murphy said, noting that Fisher also could not identify Hart in a photo lineup.

If the jury finds Hart guilty of murder, but does not accept the aggravating circumstances laid forth by Bucci, it may find Hart guilty of murder in the second degree, which would make him eligible for parole at some point.

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