MILFORD, Pa. (AP) — As Eric Frein tries to avoid death row for ambushing two Pennsylvania State Police troopers at their barracks, defense lawyers are suggesting they intend to raise questions about his father’s influence on the gunman, a college dropout and ne’er-do-well who lived with his parents into his 30s.
Frein was convicted last week of all 12 counts against him in the 2014 attack that killed 38-year-old Cpl. Bryon Dickson, a married father of two and trooper-of-the-year nominee, and left Trooper Alex Douglass with debilitating injuries.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Frein, 33, who they say targeted state police because he was trying to foment an uprising against the government. Frein’s lawyers want the jury to sentence him to life without parole.
The penalty phase opened with Dickson’s widow giving emotional testimony about her family’s loss, and Douglass telling jurors he might lose his lower leg to amputation. The jury learned about Dickson’s passion for getting drunken drivers off the road.
The defense has comparatively little to work with as they try to persuade jurors to spare Frein’s life.
Their case, which begins in earnest on Monday, will partly focus on the killer’s relationship with his father, Eugene Michael Frein, a retired Army major.
Defense lawyer William Ruzzo said Eric Frein tried to emulate his dad but didn’t measure up. His father was a decent football player; Eric got hurt. His father was a career military man; Eric enjoyed military re-enacting. His father got a doctorate in microbiology; Eric majored in science but “either failed out or drifted away,” Ruzzo told jurors.
“He was a geeky guy who played video games excessively,” the lawyer said.
His father, meanwhile, held some out-of-the-mainstream views about law enforcement. He thought police wielded too much power, insisting sheriff’s departments should be the primary enforcer of laws because at least sheriffs are elected and thus can be held accountable, according to Ruzzo.
Eric’s few friends “tried to avoid Mike Frein because they didn’t want to listen to his ranting and raving,” he said.
Not Eric. He’d descend from his bedroom for late-night bull sessions with his father.
Michael Frein exaggerated his military exploits, telling his son he’d been a sniper who had seen combat, Ruzzo said.
It turned out Eric was a better shot than his father, excelling at marksmanship in high school. He put those skills to deadly use on Sept. 12, 2014, when he shot Dickson and Douglass from a distance of 87 yards, then disappeared into the woods until his capture 48 days later.
While eluding police, he wrote to his parents that only revolution “can get us back the liberties we once had.”
Ruzzo made clear that Frein’s father did not incite his son to violence against police. What Eric Frein really needed was discipline and a good talking-to about how he was wasting his life, the lawyer said.
“Someone, somewhere should’ve had that talk with him,” he said. “Does that diminish Eric’s responsibility? No, absolutely not.”
Michael Frein, who attended some of the trial, is scheduled to testify on his son’s behalf.
Any mitigation offered by the defense would have to outweigh the aggravating factors that jurors will take into consideration as they weigh Frein’s fate: The gunman killed a law enforcement officer, and he did it while committing other felonies. Frein was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, terrorism and other felony counts.
“There’s but one decision to make when it comes to full justice, and that is to sentence this defendant to death,” Pike County First Assistant District Attorney Bruce DeSarro told the jury.