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Husband's Insanity Plea in Wife's Death a Longshot, Experts Say

Trial: Prosecutors argue that the cross-dressing dermatologist killed his spouse to avoid a costly divorce case.

November 17, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Troubling images have accompanied Dr. Richard Sharpe's murder trial here. Over and over, the 47-year-old dermatologist has been portrayed as a cross-dresser who swallowed his wife's birth control pills in order to grow breasts and who used his own laser hair-removal techniques to rid himself of unwanted body hair.

In a small courtroom here crowded with family and curious spectators, defense lawyers have made no secret of their client's unusual habits, arguing that Sharpe is legally insane--and hence not responsible for killing his wife with a high-powered rifle July 14, 2000.

Prosecutors say Sharpe is a clear-minded killer who murdered 44-year-old Karen Sharpe because he feared that the divorce she was seeking would financially cripple him.

In his second day on the witness stand Friday, Sharpe spoke so softly that his lawyer had to urge him to speak up. Often he squeezed his eyes shut. His face sagged and his dark hair hung limp to his shoulders.

But Sharpe crisply responded to questions about complicated financial transactions. He recalled precise details about mortgages and other money matters. He also referred to exact dosages of medication he said he was taking at the time of the killing. More than once, he corrected defense attorney Julianne Balliro in her own line of questioning.

"I believe that was 1998," he told her when she cited the wrong date for a high school reunion he and his wife attended.

Sharpe then described how at the reunion he threw a drink at a man with whom his wife had once been romantically involved.

"She insisted that the deejay play his favorite song instead of mine," Sharpe explained.

Legal experts say the Sharpe defense team's attempt to seek a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity poses clear risks in Massachusetts, where the standard for insanity is high.

"You have to be drooling," said Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, an expert on criminal law. "It's a very daunting standard in Massachusetts."

Sharpe, said Dershowitz, "doesn't come off as a raving lunatic at all. This guy seems to be a very disturbed man with a sad and sympathetic background. But is the jury going to say that is insanity?"

Earlier in the week, Sharpe's three siblings told the court about their miserable childhood at the hands of an abusive father. Sharpe spent much of Thursday recounting how he discovered in adolescence that wearing women's clothes made him feel "safer and more relaxed."

He also walked the court through his high school courtship in Shelton, Conn., with the former Karen Hatfield. He testified that they hid her pregnancy at 17 until it became "absurdly" obvious.

Against their parents' wishes, they eloped to Pennsylvania after their daughter Shannon, now 27, was born. They scrimped so he could attend medical school, eventually establishing a lucrative dermatology practice. By the time of his wife's death, the couple had amassed more than $5 million.

The laser hair removal business provided the Sharpes with much of their fortune. They had two more children and purchased a grand home in Wenham, an upscale community north of Boston.

But success did not bring happiness. The doctor testified that he and his wife had extramarital relationships. He said they often argued, sometimes violently.

Sharpe also said he was treated by a psychiatrist and at one point was committed to a locked ward in a mental hospital.

After he stopped seeing the psychiatrist, Sharpe said he continued to prescribe himself antidepressants.

He also kept up his habit of privately wearing women's clothes and makeup.

He testified Friday about having dinner with his girlfriend on the night of his wife's murder. He said he drank "multiple glasses of red wine, which is what I usually drink." Then he and his girlfriend went dancing.

He calmly outlined the events as he drove to the Wenham home, which he had been barred from after his wife was granted a restraining order. Sharpe said he shot his wife with the rifle he brought with him after she waved the restraining order document at him and refused to let him into the home.

The couple's two young children were in a room nearby when their mother was shot. A baby-sitter watched the killing in the Sharpes' front hallway.

Sharpe described in detail Friday how he threw out his gun and ammunition and fled to a motel in New Hampshire. He even recalled filling his car with gas.

If his defense strategy succeeds and he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, Sharpe will be committed to a state mental hospital until he is determined not to be a threat. If prosecutors win a conviction of first-degree murder, Sharpe could be sentenced to life in prison. The trial will continue next week.

Meanwhile, the baby-sitter who witnessed the murder has filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit against Sharpe for emotional distress.

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