Jury sentences ambush killer to death penalty
MILFORD, Pa. — A bell tolled the fate of a gunman after a jury on Wednesday condemned him to die for shooting two Pennsylvania troopers at their barracks in a late-night ambush, killing one and leaving a second with devastating injuries.
Eric Frein, 33, was sentenced by a jury to death by lethal injection a week after his conviction on charges including murder of a law enforcement officer and terrorism.
Prosecutors said Frein was hoping to start an uprising against the government when he opened fire with a rifle on the Blooming Grove barracks in the Pocono Mountains in 2014. Cpl. Bryon Dickson II, a Marine veteran and married father of two, was killed in the late-night ambush, and Trooper Alex Douglass was critically wounded.
Frein led police on a 48-day manhunt in the Poconos before U.S. marshals caught him at an abandoned airplane hangar.
He did not take the witness stand in his own defense, nor did he ask the jury to spare his life in the penalty phase. His lawyers had argued for a sentence of life in prison without parole, presenting evidence he'd grown up in a dysfunctional home. His father told the jurors he had failed his son, and his mother said, "I want my son to be saved."
Prosecutors portrayed Frein as a remorseless killer who randomly attacked in hopes of fomenting rebellion.
Frein kept a journal in which he coolly described shooting Dickson twice and watching him fall "still and quiet." And in a letter to his parents, written while he was on the run but never sent, he complained about lost liberties, spoke of revolution and said, "The time seems right for a spark to ignite a fire in the hearts of men."
Frein showed "wickedness of heart" when he "made a choice to pull that cold trigger again, again, again and again," District Attorney Ray Tonkin said in his closing argument Wednesday.
"Full justice is sentencing this defendant to death," he said.
Following a tradition that dates to the 19th century, Pike County's sheriff rang the bell atop the courthouse eight times, heralding that Frein had received a death sentence. The bell last tolled for a condemned inmate in the 1980s.
The sentencing caps a saga that began Sept. 12, 2014, when Frein hid in the woods across the street from the barracks and targeted Dickson as he was leaving work. He then shot Douglass, who had come to the aid of his mortally wounded comrade.
Police linked Frein to the ambush after a man walking his dog discovered his partly submerged SUV three days after the ambush in a swamp a few miles from the shooting scene. Inside, investigators found shell casings matching those found at the barracks and Frein's driver's license.
The discovery sparked a manhunt that involved 1,000 law enforcement officials and spanned more than 300 square miles, rattling communities throughout the Poconos.
His lawyers did not contest his guilt, focusing their efforts on trying to save his life during the penalty phase of the trial.
The defense told jurors that Frein grew up with an angry, domineering and abusive father who imparted his anti-government and anti-police views to him. Lawyers asked the jury to consider Frein's relationship with his dad, Eugene Michael "Mike" Frein, a mitigating circumstance as it weighed a sentence of life or death.
Tonkin ridiculed the effort to cast Frein's father as a villain, saying Frein's lawyers were trying to "deflect from the murderer over there and put Eugene Frein on trial."
Dickson's widow, meanwhile, gave emotional testimony about how she and her two young sons have struggled since his murder, and Douglass, the injured trooper, described suffering from a range of health problems since Frein shot him through both hips.
Though the gunman faces a bleak existence on death row, he likely won't face execution for decades, if ever. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, and Pennsylvania's last execution took place in 1999. The state has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976.
Frein's lawyers have promised to tie up his case in appeals.