Bell tolls as police ambush killer gets death sentence
Milford, Pa. — The bell atop the Pike County Courthouse last tolled the fate of a condemned killer in the 1980s.
On Wednesday, it rang again.
Eric Frein, the would-be revolutionary who shot two Pennsylvania troopers, one fatally, in a late-night attack at their barracks, was sentenced to death late Wednesday. The jury’s decision that Frein should die by lethal injection brought a shouted “yes!” from a gallery that included high-ranking state police brass, the slain officer’s mother and the trooper who suffered debilitating injuries after Frein shot him with a high-powered rifle.
“Jurors have delivered full justice in this case and issued the penalty that is so richly deserved by Eric Frein,” said District Attorney Ray Tonkin.
Frein, 33, did not react visibly to the sentence.
Minutes after the jury issued it, a Pike County’s sheriff climbed the courthouse cupola and rang the bell eight times, following a tradition that dates to the 19th century.
Prosecutors said Frein was hoping to start an uprising against the government when he opened fire on the Blooming Grove barracks in the Pocono Mountains on Sept. 12, 2014. Cpl. Bryon Dickson II, a Marine veteran and married father of two, was killed, and Trooper Alex Douglass was critically wounded.
Frein led police on a 48-day manhunt after the ambush, and for a time he was among America’s most wanted criminals.
Prosecutors portrayed him as a remorseless killer who attacked troopers at random in hopes of fomenting rebellion.
Frein kept a journal in which he coolly described shooting Dickson twice and watching him fall “still and quiet.” In a letter to his parents, written while he was on the run but never sent, he complained about lost liberties, spoke of revolution and said, “The time seems right for a spark to ignite a fire in the hearts of men.”
Frein showed “wickedness of heart” when he “made a choice to pull that cold trigger again, again, again and again,” Tonkin said in his closing argument Wednesday.
The gunman likely won’t face execution for decades, if ever. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, and Pennsylvania’s last execution took place in 1999. The state has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976.
Frein’s lawyers promised to tie up his case in appeals.
Defense lawyer Bill Ruzzo told reporters he was disappointed by the death sentence, and surprised the jury failed to find a single mitigating circumstance that would point to a sentence of life without parole. His lawyers had urged jurors to spare Frein’s life, telling them he’d grown up in a dysfunctional home.
“The jury has rejected our defense, so we’ll go back to the drawing board,” Ruzzo said.
Col. Tyree Blocker, the state police commissioner, thanked the jury for delivering justice.
“Cpl. Dickson will always remain in the hearts of all members of the Pennsylvania State Police, forever,” he said outside the courthouse.
Douglass, who has endured 18 surgeries and might lose his lower leg, smiled broadly as the sentenced was pronounced but did not comment afterward.