MILFORD, Pa. – A jury Wednesday ordered the death penalty for Eric Frein, who gunned down two state troopers outside their Pike County barracks in 2014 and then eluded more than 1,000 law-enforcement officers until he was captured in the Poconos after 48 days.
As the verdict was read just before 10 p.m. in a packed courtroom, sighs of relief and a shout of “yes” were heard from the troopers and the victims' family members present.
Frein showed little reaction as the verdict was read after nearly five hours of deliberation.
The decision marked the end of Frein’s four-week trial, which offered new information about the man who spent the fall of 2014 on the FBI’s most-wanted list for killing Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass.
A sentencing hearing is to be held Thursday afternoon before Judge Gregory H. Chelak.
Lawyers for the 33-year-old Canadensis man did not rebut or deny any evidence that he was the killer. Instead, they sought to persuade jurors to see Frein’s troubled home life – with an abusive, alcoholic father who railed against police and the government, and fabricated stories about being a war hero – as reason to spare him from the death penalty.
But the jury, selected from Chester County and sequestered in Milford during the trial, decided execution was the only proper punishment for the shootings outside the Blooming Grove barracks in September 2014.
“Cpl. Dickson will always remain in the hearts of all members of the Pennsylvania state police forever,” Commissioner Tyree Blocker said outside the courthouse with former Commissioner Frank Noonan, who was leading the state police at the time of the manhunt.
Frein will not be put to death immediately, if at all. His lawyers vowed to pursue appeals on his behalf, and Pennsylvania has a moratorium on executions. Frein will join more than 170 other death-row inmates in a state that has not executed anyone since 1999.
Bill Ruzzo, one of Frein’s lawyers, told reporters outside the courthouse that he had plans to appeal at least one issue – the decision to allow Frein's video-recorded confession to be played for the jury.
“Hope springs eternal with every defendant I’ve ever had,” Ruzzo said.
Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin said after the verdict that the death penalty was "richly deserved."
"This verdict is for each and every member of law enforcement who dons a uniform and goes out to protect us each and every day," he said.
The Freins testified about failing their son, whom they described as a loner who struggled in school and did not learn to read until sixth grade. Defense lawyers argued that his father’s influence – which included fabricated stories about being a sniper in Vietnam – should be a mitigating factor.
“This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” defense attorney Michael Weinstein told jurors in his closing argument for the penalty phase. “This is the tenor and climate of this house.”
Frein’s mother, Debbie, was the only family member present in the courtroom as the verdict was read. She showed no reaction.
Frein did not testify during his trial. As the penalty phase continued, his lawyers said he stopped communicating with them and was put on suicide watch. Monday, he had to be brought into court in a wheelchair.
But Tonkin portrayed Frein as a cold-blooded murderer, and focused on the mourning and struggle of the Dickson family.
“Full justice is deserved in this case,” Tonkin said. “Absolute full justice.”
Frein, Tonkin said, remained “ready for battle,” armed and carrying bombs, until he was captured outside an abandoned airplane hangar where he was hiding.
His capture ended an intense search that included foot patrols, armored vehicles, and helicopters. Schools were closed in parts of Pike and Monroe Counties for parts of the six-week search, and residents faces roadblocks and searches of their properties. The state police spent more than $11 million on the manhunt; that does not include money spent by the FBI, U.S. marshals, and other agencies that deployed officers to the area.
This year, Pike County budgeted $250,000 for the trial, and the county commissioners attributed a tax increase in part to its cost – longer and with more media attention that any the county had hosted in decades.
Douglass, the trooper wounded in the ambush attack, was present in the courtroom for the verdict. He gripped the hand of George Bivens, who was the public face of the state police search for Frein in 2014, and smiled after the death penalty verdict was announced.