BOSTON – A cross-dressing, millionaire Harvard dermatologist serving life in prison for shooting his estranged wife to death has been found hanged in his cell, a prison spokeswoman said Tuesday. Richard Sharpe was found by his cellmate at MCI-Norfolk on Monday evening and was declared dead at a hospital, said Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin.
"He tied a bedsheet to the top bunk," Wiffin said. She declined to characterize the death as a suicide, however, saying it remained under investigation by the corrections department and the Norfolk district attorney's office. An autopsy was planned.
Sharpe, 54, had tried to hang himself in his cell in 2002.
He was convicted in 2001 of shooting his wife, Karen, in the foyer of her Wenham home in July 2000 as her brother and others looked on. In 2007, he was acquitted of charges he tried to hire a hitman to kill the prosecutor in his murder trial.
Sharpe had been a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty who ran several businesses outside his medical practice and parlayed his earnings into millions in the stock market.
Prosecutors said he killed his wife because he was angry over the prospect of losing $3 million in their divorce.
His arrest drew national attention when photographs of him wearing slinky dresses and fishnet stockings were widely published. His wife had said in earlier affidavits that he stole her birth control pills in an effort to enlarge his breasts.
At his trial, Sharpe testified that he began cross-dressing at a young age to escape his father's rage. Defense witnesses, including Sharpe's siblings, testified that Sharpe was abused for years by his father. He testified he didn't remember much about the night of the killing.
A defense psychiatrist said Sharpe suffered from a half-dozen disorders, including depression and intermittent explosive disorder, which causes bursts of rage or aggression. The expert said alcohol made them worse.
But prosecutors said Sharpe faked symptoms of mental illness. He did not kill his wife in a burst of rage, they argued, but planned the slaying after she left him.
Richard Sharpe's appellate lawyer, Michael Traft, called for a thorough investigation of Sharpe's death, saying his client had not seemed depressed recently. Just last week, Sharpe sent him a letter saying he was looking forward tutoring other inmates in math and computer science, Traft said.
"There was no indication that he was in any way despondent or had any contemplation of suicide," said Traft, who said he was preparing a motion for a new trial for Sharpe.
Mark Smith, a partner in the law firm that represented her in the divorce, said he hoped that Sharpe's death "brings some closure to this nightmare for the three Sharpe children."
The 2007 trial centered on allegations that Sharpe approached another prison inmate for help in killing Robert Weiner, who had brought the murder case against Sharpe as an Essex County prosecutor. Sharpe was acquitted in a four-day trial.
"Whenever a person takes their own life, obviously you feel badly for that person, but my true sympathy is with Karen Sharpe," Weiner said Tuesday. "She died needlessly."