Deborah Frein of Canadensis sat still in the courtroom Wednesday night, silently staring down into her lap, as the jury announced her son should be sentenced to death, not life without parole.
The jury of eight women and four men, who reached the unanimous verdict after four hours of deliberation, had earlier convicted Frein, 33, of first-degree murder in the 2014 sniper ambush that killed Cpl. Bryon Dickson, 38, and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass at the state police Blooming Grove barracks. Formal sentencing was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the end result of a trial lasting 11 days in its guilt phase and five days in its penalty phase.
No visible emotion
Captured in Pocono Township after a 48-day manhunt following the shootings, Frein himself, who had chosen not to testify on his own behalf, showed no emotional reaction to the verdict Wednesday night while, on the other side of the courtroom behind him, state troopers and their supporters, some in tears of vindication, hugged and shook hands. Dickson’s tearful mother, Darla Dickson, hugged supporters while Douglass, whose injury likely will affect him for the rest of his life, hugged a woman sitting beside him and received pats on the back from fellow troopers.
The jury weighed aggravating factors, presented by the prosecution in efforts to get a death verdict, against mitigating factors presented by the defense in efforts to get a life-without-parole verdict.
“You’ve heard Eric Frein’s family and friends testify on his behalf, but who is the real Eric Frein?,” District Attorney Ray Tonkin asked in his closing argument to the jury. “I submit to you that none of the people who testified on his behalf know who he really is.
“The real Eric Frein is in fact the murdering, bomb-making terrorist seated right over there,” Tonkin said, pointing to where Frein sat quietly between defense attorneys Michael Weinstein and William Ruzzo. “His choices are what has brought him here today.
“He chose to lie in wait (in the woods across Route 402 from the state police barracks) and pull the trigger multiple times, targeting Cpl. Dickson,” Tonkin said. “Instead of leaving the scene at that point, he chose to wait for someone to come help Cpl. Dickson and then targeted that person, Trooper Douglass, as well. He also endangered the safety of police dispatcher Nicole Palmer, who came out to discover Cpl. Dickson lying mortally wounded on the ground just prior to Trooper Douglass’ arrival.
“You’ve heard this defendant speaking to his family from jail in phone conversations recorded as recently as this past weekend,” Tonkin said. “You’ve heard the lack of remorse in his tone of voice when discussing this case.”
In one taped phone conversation, Frein joked with his mother about selling his story for money to the highest bidder. In another conversation, he told his father his defense attorney wouldn’t be so stupid as to portray the father as a key factor influencing Frein to do what he did.
“For all he’s done, he deserves nothing less than full justice, which in this case is death,” Tonkin told the jury.
“Sad, misguided loner”
The defense portrayed Frein as a sad, misguided loner who grew up struggling with learning difficulties and failing to win his verbally abusive father’s approval.
The impressionable young Frein grew up believing what turned out to be lies about his father having served as a U.S. Army combat veteran in Vietnam, as well as his father’s rants about government being too restrictive and police abusing their authority, the defense said. Frein inherited also his father’s love of rifles, including the one eventually used to shoot the two state troopers, and got involved in military re-enactments after failing to join the U.S. Armed Forces and become a real soldier like his father had been.
A year after barely graduating from high school, Frein enrolled at East Stroudsburg University in an ultimately failed attempt to become a biochemist like his father. For several semesters, he accepted thousands of dollars in tuition money from his parents, never telling them he had dropped out of school.
After being unable to find steady, meaningful employment, Frein planned and executed the sniper ambush at the police barracks in efforts to start a revolution to change America back to what it once was, according to a letter he wrote his parents prior to the incident. It was his last try to win his father’s approval, the defense said.
“While in no way excusing or condoning what you’ve convicted him of, I ask you to look into your hearts to determine for yourselves who Eric Frein really is and if he deserves to be sentenced to death,” defense attorney Michael Weinstein told the jury in his closing argument.
The prosecution raised the following points about what the defense, in efforts to gain jury sympathy, called mitigating factors:
Eric Frein protecting his younger sister against their father’s alleged physical abuse, on which the defense presented no police or 911 call corroboration, has nothing to do with this case. The father’s alleged drunken phone calls to his daughter from a prior marriage, supposedly telling her about his extramarital affair and desire to kill someone, are likewise irrelevant.
The defense provided no school records documenting Frein’s supposed learning difficulties.
How was Frein truly isolated from extended family, as the defense claims, if he had a Jeep he could drive to visit them (the same Jeep he abandoned when fleeing the murder scene)?
Yes, Frein did surrender unarmed and without resistance to authorities, but only when authorities finally located and got the drop on him after the 48-day manhunt. At the location of his arrest were found rifles and ammunition positioned in such a manner as to indicate he had not been planning to go down peacefully.
Upon his arrest, Frein told authorities where to find the guns, saying he didn’t want any children happening across them to get hurt.
However, he displayed no such concern for children when leaving two shrapnel bombs authorities discovered at his campsite in the woods, during the manhunt following the shootings, or a rifle found ditched not far from the abandoned Jeep. The defense pointed out the bombs were not live.
The remorse Frein displayed during his post-arrest police interview, when told the slain trooper was a father of children now ages 10 and 8, was fake.
A defense penology expert witness and death penalty opponent testified Frein, if sentenced to life without parole instead of death, would be caged under lock and key for the rest of his life. Contradicting this, the prosecution’s penology expert witness testified Frein, if proving himself a model prisoner, would be allowed privileges such as extended hours out of his cell, working and taking part in recreational activities within prison walls and being able to watch TV in his cell for as many hours each day as he wants.
The jury had to decide if Frein, having been convicted of what he’s been convicted of, deserves such privileges. In the end, the jury found no validity to any of the mitigating factors the defense presented.
Jurors, Dickson’s family, Douglass and Frein’s family were all unavailable for comment after court was adjourned following the verdict.
“We are pleased with the jury’s hard work and commitment to justice, as reflected in its diligent deliberation throughout both phases of the trial,” Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree Blocker told news media. “I can’t tell you how much the citizens of this county appreciate our state police and the various other law enforcement agencies who all worked together in bringing Eric Frein to justice, as well as Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin and First Assistant District Attorney Bruce DeSarro for their professional conduct in prosecuting this case to its conclusion.
“Cpl. Dickson will always remain in our hearts as our state police personnel continue to provide quality professional services to the residents and visitors of Pike County,” Blocker said. “To all those who stood with our state police during this difficult time in our 111-year history, your support is appreciated more than you will ever know.”
Accompanying Blocker was Frank Noonan, who was state police commissioner at the time of the sniper ambush and subsequent manhunt.
“The community has supported the state police ever since this case started two and a half years ago,” Noonan said. “Elementary school students sent us cards to help us keep our spirits up. The Red Cross provided us with food and shelter during the manhunt. There were people doing whatever they could to help us and the family of Cpl. Dickson, as well as Trooper Douglass and his family. It really means a great deal.”
In addition to being formally sentenced for first-degree murder Thursday, Frein will be sentenced on other charges including first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, attempted murder, attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, reckless endangerment, terrorism and making or having weapons of mass destruction.
Frein will be the first defendant sentenced to death in a Pike County first-degree murder case since the 1980s, Tonkin said.