Bomb thrower persuades jury
Attempted homicide trial ends with conviction on lesser charges
An Easton man who threw Molotov cocktails at police officers was acquitted Thursday of attempted murder in a mixed verdict after a trial in which he insisted he was suicidal and intended to harm no one but himself.
Though he was found not guilty of the most serious charges, Jeffrey S. Folkner was convicted of a slew of lesser crimes, including four counts of aggravated assault. He’ll still face potentially years, if not decades, in prison when he is sentenced in December.
The jury delivered its decision after two hours of deliberations in a case that illustrated just how quickly police standoffs can turn to violence.
Police called to the West Ward for a domestic dispute last year were soon greeted with a chaotic and fiery scene, as Folkner threw firebombs at officers, narrowly missing them and setting a neighboring business on fire.
The charges for which Folkner was found guilty also included arson, risking a catastrophe, possessing incendiary devices and criminal mischief. Many of them were conceded to the jury by Folkner’s attorney, who cast his client as a desperate man who was only trying to provoke police to kill him.
“I’m happy with the verdict,” defense lawyer James Connell said. “I think the jury did what they’re supposed to do. I don’t think Mr. Folkner intended to kill anybody.”
The attempted murder charges related to the first firebomb that Folkner threw, which exploded next to Sgt. Ryan Celia and Officer Eric Siegfried. Both men testified they had never been so scared, though they managed to escape injury.
Reacting to the verdict, Celia said it was “obviously disappointing,” but that “is what it is.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the verdict on the attempted homicides. But there’s enough potential sentencing power for the court to keep this defendant in jail for 20 years, or potentially longer.” — Assistant District Attorney Edward Penetar
“You trust the jury to make the right decision and whether it is in your favor or not in your favor, you have to go with it,” Celia said.
The aggravated assault charges related to Folkner’s third and final bomb, which exploded near four other officers: Eric Campbell, Diego Santiago, Brian Connaughton and Inspector Daniel Reagan.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Reagan, a longtime member of the force, told the jury on Tuesday. “It was just a rolling ball of fire.”
The mixed verdict appeared to hinge on the question of Folkner’s intent. For attempted murder, prosecutors had to prove that he aimed to kill. For aggravated assault, they had to show only that he meant serious harm.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the verdict on the attempted homicides,” Assistant District Attorney Edward Penetar said. “But there’s enough potential sentencing power for the court to keep this defendant in jail for 20 years, or potentially longer.”
With the alleged attack on Celia and Siegfried, prosecutors did not pursue aggravated assault charges. That left the jury with two options: either to convict Folkner of the pair’s attempted murder, or to acquit him altogether of offenses involving them. Often authorities will file both sets of charges as a stopgap in case jurors waver.
Penetar said he stands by the decision to focus on attempted murder alone.
“We think that was the appropriate charge,” Penetar said. “We don’t second guess that decision at all.”
On July 18, 2018, police were called to the home after Folkner hit his sister’s boyfriend with a baseball bat during an argument, according to testimony. During the twohour scare, police repeatedly tried to take Folkner into custody, knowing he had a gun that he fired twice while holed up at the address on the 600 block of Pearl Street.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Folkner admitted tossing the makeshift explosives that night, which he fashioned using beer bottles, gasoline and paper towels as a wick.
But Folkner said he did so expecting officers would rush through the door and end his life — a step, he told jurors, he was unable to take on his own. Connell cast his client as a “big oaf ” and a “sad sack” who had suicide, and not homicide, on his mind.
At the end of the standoff, Folkner left the home with a machete, giving police the middle finger as he walked toward them while smoking a cigarette. Video recorded by an onlooker captured officers yelling, “Put it down! Put it down!” as Folkner ignored their commands.
While Penetar agreed Folkner was attempting “suicide by cop” in those moments, he said Folkner did so only to escape the consequences of his attack on police. Penetar praised the officers’ restraint, saying they used a stun gun to subdue Folkner when they easily could have killed him.
Over two days of testimony, Penetar argued Folkner’s actions proved he was methodically trying to harm police.
Penetar highlighted that Folkner dodged in and out of his house as he threw the firebombs, actions the prosecutor said belied someone hoping officers would shoot him. Penetar also underscored Folkner’s profanity-laced comments about police immediately after his arrest, when Folkner was recorded saying, “I should have [expletive] killed them.”
Prosecutors also charged that from jail, Folkner took steps to cover up his culpability, including by acting as though he was crazy while on recorded phone calls with his father.
Folkner will be sentenced Dec. 10 by Judge Craig Dally.