Defense materials spark suit in Erie pizza bomber case

Erie Times-News |

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong had a difficult relationship with her court-appointed lawyer, Douglas Sughrue, when she was on trial in the Erie pizza bomber case.

The tension, evident when Diehl-Armstrong criticized Sughrue in the courtroom, is continuing even after Diehl-Armstrong's death in federal prison in 2017.

The film production company that created "Evil Genius," the Netflix docuseries on the pizza bomber case that was released a year ago, is suing Sughrue in state court in New York, claiming that he is wrongfully depriving the company of materials related to Diehl-Armstrong's case, including defense notes and four hours of recorded conversations with her.

Last in Line Pictures is claiming that a life rights agreement it signed with Diehl-Armstrong in trumps "any attorney-client privilege" that Sughrue may claim to the materials, according to the lawsuit, the filing of which Courthouse News Service first reported. The suit was filed on Friday with the state Supreme Court of New York for New York County, which encompasses Manhattan.

Through the suit, Last in Line "seeks to establish its entitlement to case files" in Sughrue's possession, including the four hours of an "audio/video recording" in which Diehl-Armstrong discusses "her life and her defense" in the pizza bomber case, also known as the collar bomb case, according to the suit.

The suit also claims that Diehl-Armstrong waived attorney-client privilege as it relates to the materials by disclosing privileged information to Last in Line over the years. Among the materials she provided "bear the title 'Confidential: For Your Investigation + Diehl-Armstrong's defense,'" according to the suit, which refers to Diehl-Armstrong as MDA.

Some of those materials, according to the suit, include "hand-written notes discussing the facts, investigation and strategy surrounding defendant's defense of MDA in the collar-bomb case."

Last in Line is based in Beverly Hills, California, but is suing Sughrue in New York under that state's "long-arm statute," which gives jurisdiction to parties that transact business in New York, as Last in Line, in the suit, states that it does. Last in Line's executive producer is Trey Borzillieri, who appeared in "Evil Genius" and attended Diehl-Armstrong's trial in federal court in Erie in 2010.

Last in Line wants a judge to compel Sughrue to release the materials. The suit does not state why Last in Line wants the materials, though the company could be considering developing more productions about Diehl-Armstrong.

Sughrue declined to comment on Monday. He said he is still reviewing the suit.

The lawyer for Last in Line, Catherine Savio, of New York, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diehl-Armstrong was 68 when she died of breast cancer while serving a sentence of life plus 30 years, in a federal prison in Texas, for her conviction in the pizza bomber case. She claimed she was framed in the case, in which pizza deliveryman Brian Wells was killed when a bomb locked to his neck exploded after he robbed what was then the PNC Bank branch on Peach Street in Summit Township in .

Among those who testified against her was a co-conspirator, Kenneth E. Barnes, who pleaded guilty and was initially sentenced to 45 years in federal prison. Barnes, 65, had the sentence cut in half, and he is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center at Butner, North Carolina, near Raleigh. His release date is .

Diehl-Armstrong referred to Barnes as a liar during her trial, but she also verbally attacked Sughrue, who was appointed to represent her after she fired her first lawyer, Thomas Patton, who was then the assistant federal public defender in Erie.

"I don't think he can find his butt with both hands," Diehl-Armstrong said of Sughrue during her trial. And after Sughrue questioned her on the witness stand, she said: "I can't take you anymore. I really can't. You're driving me crazy here. I can't take it; You're asking me stupid questions."

Sughrue, a veteran defense attorney, showed patience with Diehl-Armstrong in court. As much as she yelled at him, he never raised his voice with her.

Last in Line's suit against Sughrue is the second court case involving Diehl-Armstrong following her death. A New York man who claims he was her common-law husband has lost repeated attempts in federal court in Erie to get Diehl-Armstrong's remains from a cemetery in Arlington, Texas, near where she was incarcerated when she died. He appealed the latest rejection on .

Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNpalattella.

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