Jury selection begins in trial of suspect in barracks ambush
WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — As jury selection began Thursday in the capital murder trial of an anti-government sharpshooter charged in the 2014 ambush slaying of a Pennsylvania State Police trooper, a prosecutor vowed to seek justice and the defense looked for people open to sparing the suspect’s life.
Eric Frein, 33, could face a death sentence if he’s convicted in the attack in northeastern Pennsylvania that killed Cpl. Bryon Dickson II and injured Trooper Alex Douglass. He led police on a 48-day manhunt in the Pocono Mountains before his capture by U.S. marshals.
Frein, wearing a dark suit and tie, chatted quietly with his lawyers and occasionally glanced at his parents, Michael and Deborah Frein, who sat in the gallery.
“We’re looking for fairness. We’re looking for jurors who can keep an open mind. Compassion,” his lawyer, Michael Weinstein, told reporters outside the courtroom.
The first round of 104 potential jurors who arrived for jury selection at the courthouse in Chester County, outside Philadelphia, answered questions from the judge about their knowledge of the case and their views on the death penalty.
More than two-thirds said they had heard about the case, while more than a third said they would be unable to impose the death penalty on moral or religious grounds. Only nine were dismissed, the rest were told to come back for individual questioning next week. Another batch of potential jurors will report to the courthouse Friday.
The prosecution and defense agreed to pick an outside jury because of blanket news coverage of the Sept. 12, 2014, sniper attack in Pike County and its prolonged aftermath. The courthouse where the jury is being picked is about 150 miles away from the shooting scene at the Blooming Grove barracks.
“We look forward to selecting a fair and impartial jury in this matter, bringing them back to Pike County and seeking justice in this case,” District Attorney Ray Tonkin said outside court.
About 1,200 people in all received jury summons for the trial.
A defense lawyer who has tried death penalty cases said Frein’s lawyers have a daunting task ahead.
The ambush “was planned. It was thought out,” said Joseph D’Andrea, who is not associated with the case. The gunman, he said, “laid in wait to randomly (shoot) two troopers.”
Prosecutors say Frein spoke of wanting to start a revolution in a letter to his parents and described Dickson’s slaying as an “assassination.” Frein allegedly told authorities he wanted to “wake people up” and “make a change (in government).”
Defense lawyers are trying to get Frein’s videotaped confession suppressed, arguing he invoked his right to remain silent and wasn’t told by investigators that his family had hired a lawyer.
Authorities have said they have a wealth of physical evidence tying Frein to the crime, including spent shell casings in his sport utility vehicle that matched those found at the crime scene.
Police also recovered a journal allegedly written by Frein in which the gunman describes how he opened fire on two state troopers — watching one of his victims fall “still and quiet” — and then made his escape.
Another Frein attorney, Bill Ruzzo, was asked Thursday whether the defense prioritized winning an acquittal or saving his life.
“He’s entitled to representation for both. Of course, we’re interested in saving his life. Wouldn’t anybody be?” he said.
Frein, who has pleaded not guilty, will be held in Chester County for the duration of jury selection. Opening statements are scheduled for early April. The trial is expected to last four or five weeks.