Attorney says Frein should get new sentence hearing
An attorney for convicted cop killer Eric Matthew Frein said he believes Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will agree state police illegally elicited a confession from his client, but that may not be enough to win a new trial.
William Ruzzo said the justices focused questions at a hearing Thursday on whether investigators violated Frein’s Miranda right to remain silent when they interrogated him shortly after his Oct. 30, 2014, arrest.
Frein, 35, of Canadensis, is seeking to overturn his conviction and death sentence for the Sept. 12, 2014, sniper attack outside the Blooming Grove state police barracks that killed Cpl. Bryon K. Dickson II of Dunmore and seriously wounded Trooper Alex T. Douglass of Olyphant.
Ruzzo acknowledged Frein agreed to tell police where he hid a rifle used in the attack but said Frein advised police he did not want to talk about anything else. Despite that, they continued to question him for three hours.
Speaking after Thursday’s hearing in Harrisburg, Ruzzo said even if he wins on that issue, the justices may find it was a harmless error that would not have changed the outcome of the trial because there was other significant evidence that tied Frein to the crime.
Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin argued the questioning was proper. He agreed with Ruzzo that if the court finds otherwise, the issue is unlikely to win Frein a new trial.
“The evidence in the case was overwhelming,” Tonkin said following the hearing. “If the court determined there was an error, it would be harmless.”
Ruzzo also argued Frein was wrongly denied the right to speak to a defense attorney who came to the police barracks after the interrogation began. He also raised several issues regarding the death penalty phase.
Under state law, jurors weigh aggravating circumstances, those that make a crime more heinous, against mitigating circumstances, those that lessen a defendant’s culpability. If the aggravating outweigh mitigating, the sentence is death.
Ruzzo argued Frein should get a new death sentence hearing because prosecutors presented too much emotional testimony about the impact Dickson’s death had on his family. That evidence “crossed the line,” Ruzzo said in a court filing, and unfairly swayed the jury against Frein.
The evidence included the testimony of 10 witnesses, the display of 32 photos of Dickson’s life and a 15-minute video of Dickson’s graduation from the state police academy.
Tonkin said he believes the victim impact statements are not an issue because jurors were instructed not to consider the statements unless they found both aggravating and mitigating circumstances existed. In this case, they found no mitigating circumstances.
Ruzzo said he believes he still has a basis to appeal the issue because the trial judge refused his request to instruct jurors that the mitigating evidence did not have to be an excuse for the crime or have any nexus to it.
“I argued the reason they didn’t find any mitigating circumstances was because he would not give the instruction I asked for,” Ruzzo said.
Tonkin said he believes the law is on his side regarding that matter. He said he is confident the death sentence will stand.
“We asked for full justice at the beginning of this case and anticipate the Supreme Court with uphold the sentence of death issued by the jury,” he said.
Eric Frein, left, is escorted out by police after his arraignment Oct. 31, 2014, at Pike County Courthouse in Milford. ASSOcIATED PRESS