The Frein dilemma: After massive manhunt puts region on edge, is a fair trial possible?
MILFORD, Pa. — As Halloween loomed closer in rural Pike County last year, residents weren’t focusing on their typical fall musings of finding scary costumes for their kids.
Instead, they were worried about what they perceived as a real bogeyman lurking in the shadows of the heavily wooded northeastern Pennsylvania area.
Police said that on Sept. 12, 2014, then-31-year-old Eric Matthew Frein killed a state trooper and severely wounded another by firing bullets from a high-powered rifle into them as they left a police barracks in Hawley, Pa.
As Cpl. Bryon Dickson left his shift at the Blooming Grove state police barracks around 10:30 p.m., he was killed almost instantly by two shots fired into his back and neck. Trooper Alex Douglass, who had just started his shift, rushed to Dickson’s aid and was hit by a bullet to his pelvis, severely injuring him.
Police say Frein had been hiding in the state gamelands surrounding the police headquarters, waiting to attack.
The subsequent 48-day hunt for Frein involved up to 1,000 law-enforcement personnel using search dogs, helicopters and armored trucks, at a cost of more than $11 million. The search closed roads, shut down schools, canceled hunting season and Halloween events, and moved football games to fields outside the search area.
Frein’s face was plastered across the state on wanted posters, from fliers hung outside police stations to billboards towering over highways. As journalists swarmed this heretofore sleepy area, the search became a top story on network newscasts and on front pages around the country.
Police said Frein wanted to start a revolution. In the journal he allegedly kept, Frein had written that “the time seems right for a spark to ignite in the hearts of men.” What Frein did was ignite fear in the hearts of citizens of Pike and also in neighboring Monroe County, where police believed the fugitive had fled.
“The whole time, we were all very scared for our safety,” said Pike County resident Dina Williams, who kept her two children home from elementary school for three days during the manhunt. “It was everyone on the edge, wondering if he was in our backyard.”
On Oct. 30 the search ended when a group of U.S. marshals found Frein in the Birchwood- Pocono Airpark near Tannersville, in Monroe County. Frein did not put up a fight when marshals arrested him after spotting him walking in a field near the airstrip. He was unarmed, his weapons inside a nearby abandoned hangar.
Frein was brought back to Pike County to face 12 criminal charges, including the murder of Dickson and the attempted murder of Douglass, as well as two felony counts of terrorism.
Frein, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is expected to go to trial sometime next year, although no date has been set. Recently re-elected Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin said he will pursue the death penalty.
Frein’s court-appointed lawyers are assessing whether – after all the trauma of the manhunt that disrupted the lives of thousands – their client can receive a fair trial in Pike County. His attorneys filed a motion for a change of venue in May. Then, only days later, they asked the judge to withdraw the motion “without prejudice” in order for it to be refiled at a later date.
Michael Weinstein, a Milford lawyer who, along with William Ruzzo, is representing Frein, said a motion for a change of venue is “certainly being considered.”
Such a motion usually has to be filed within 30 days of the charges. In the Frein case, a judge approved the attorneys’ motion to extend their motion time to Dec. 7, 2015.
Since 2006, there have been 65 change-of-venue or change- of-venire requests for homicide cases in Pennsylvania, according to records in the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. When a change of venue request is approved, the trial is moved to another location. When a change of venire is approved, the trial takes place in the county where the crime allegedly occurred, but the trial jurors are chosen from an outside area.
In the years since 2006, up until Sept. 30 of this year, 22 motions have been granted. These numbers do not necessarily correlate for various reasons: the requests granted could be from cases prior to 2006; requests could have been withdrawn; or the same criminal case could have entered more than one request. Still, the numbers offer a glimpse of the ratio of approved motions to filed motions.
In the past 10 years in Pike County, there have been six motions for a change of venue. In that period, two requests have been denied and one granted.
Pike County seldom sees violent crime. In 2014, the murder of Dickson was the only homicide in the county, and in the year before, there were only two. For the purpose of comparison, 619 murders were reported to Pennsylvania police agencies in 2014, according to the state’s Uniform Crime Reporting System.
In the eyes of many, the Pike County jury pool is potentially tainted in the Frein case. Skeptics cite the mass media coverage; the crowd of townspeople who surrounded the Pike County courthouse and cheered when Frein was brought outside; and the campaign flyers that District Attorney Tonkin distributed in his reelection campaign, which included a photograph of Frein being led into the courthouse.
The consensus among longtime residents of Pike County is that no crime in recent memory has received as much publicity or has been talked about more than the Frein case.
Chris Jones, the Pike County Dispatch’s editor for almost 20 years, remembers crimes as heinous as the murder of Dickson, but he said none of the others generated as much attention. The biggest news story in Pike County before the Frein case, he said, was not a crime at all — it was President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Milford in 1963 to speak at the Pinchot Institute of Conservation Studies.
“The fact that [the Frein case] was a sniper attack, it was a manhunt, it was a terrorist – this puts it on a scale with all these other events that made it a national story,” Jones said. “So in that sense, there never has been anything like that.”
The weeks that Frein was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list weighed on Dawn Cuccio in both her roles as an elementary school teacher and as a mother of three.
Cuccio, of Dingmans Ferry, tried to protect her third-grade students from finding out too much about why they suddenly weren’t allowed to go outside for recess, or why additional police officers were standing guard on the property. She also had to deal with appeasing parents who were unsure if they should send their kids to school.
Dingman Delaware Elementary, where Cuccio has taught for three years, is next to woods so thick that one can hear the rustle of leaves from a passing deer but not be able to make out its shape. Parents worried that Frein might have been lurking in those woods and watching their children as they walked in and out of the building.
Pocono Mountain School District, Monsignor McHugh School and Evergreen Community Charter Schools, all in Monroe County, as well as Wallenpaupack Area School District in Pike and Wayne counties, closed. However, Delaware Valley School District in Pike County, where Cuccio works, remained open but employed added security.
Although some parents kept their kids home, Cuccio said she personally felt confident about the school’s security and thought the community should have gone about business as usual.
Robin Gruen, a resident of Dingmans Ferry for more than 30 years, said that at first she wasn’t afraid, because news reports indicated that Frein was targeting law enforcement and was traveling farther and farther from Pike County.
“But as time went on, knowing he was getting more and more desperate?” Gruen said. “That was when my fear kicked in.”
As the days passed, Gruen said, residents talked about whether he would try to commit another crime, possibly capturing a hostage.
Dori Stewart, owner of Myer the Florist in Milford and a lifelong resident of the town, said that every time she walked her dogs, she was afraid she would run into Frein.
T.C. Crawford, who owns Action Bikes and Outdoor in Milford, said he felt very secure in the area. He said he didn’t lose any business because of a decrease in tourism, although he did know of people who were afraid to visit the area because of its proximity to the manhunt.
Jones said many in Pike County stopped worrying about their safety pretty quickly as evidence came in that Frein was about 30 miles away in the Canadensis area of Monroe County, where his parents lived. That is where the search ultimately focused and where he was captured. In the Canadensis area, residents were overcome with worry and some citizens could not get to their homes because of roadblocks. That also was the area where businesses suffered most from lack of tourism, and where Halloween celebrations were canceled.
In Pike County, the concern was mostly about how the crime would affect the police barracks, local troopers and Dickson’s family, Jones said.
Preston Ehrler, who owns the news website Milford Now and who covered the Frein case extensively, said that “in Milford, I think appropriately so, people were in deep anguish.”
Because of the distance from Canadensis, Ehrler said, life mainly returned to something approaching normal. On Facebook, gossip spread over whether Frein would decide to return to the area, or if he had left grenades in the woods as he headed to Monroe County.
“But the people who were really concerned were the people who had 10 or 20 or 30 guys at a time in camouflage going through their backyards and backwoods looking for this guy,” Ehrler said.
The biggest effect the manhunt had on Pike County was the influx of media from around the country.
Jones said, “You saw a lot of these metro reporters from Philadelphia and New York, television reporters that were wearing beautiful suits and very photogenic anchor people who you never see in a small area like this.”
When Frein was brought for his arraignment to the Pike County Courthouse, located in the quaint town square of Milford, pandemonium ensued. Reporters and local residents vied for a glimpse of a battered and bruised Frein, who police had shackled in Dickson’s handcuffs.
Jones arrived at the Dispatch’s Milford office the day of the arraignment to “a circus.” He could not find a single parking spot on the main street, which was filled with media trucks and cameras.
Williams was among those who felt a weight removed from their shoulders when they heard Frein was in custody.
“Thankfully no one else was hurt, especially police officers or citizens,” Williams said. “It was like we could go back to our normal life again.”
When a lawyer decides to apply for a change of venue, said David Kaye, an associate dean for research and distinguished professor of law at Penn State, the thought process boils down to “I could do better with a jury anywhere but here.”
Usually it is the defense applying for the change of venue, Kaye said, but the prosecution may also consider applying for a change if the defendant has a close relationship to the community from which the jury is being chosen.
The standard for whether a judge rules in favor of a change of venue is whether, in theory, a fair jury can be impaneled in the district where the trial is occurring, Kaye said. Often, the attorney applying for the change may argue that a fair and impartial jury cannot be found because of overwhelming pre- trial publicity, particularly if the publicity suggests the defendant’s guilt.
To try to prove that the publicity is tainting the jury pool, attorneys may submit evidence of supposedly biased newspaper articles or television news videos, or by commissioning a survey of public opinion.
Kaye said, however, that even if 60 percent of public opinion has already determined the defendant’s guilt, it can always be argued that the jury can be chosen from the other 40 percent.
For many notorious cases, a change of venue may not be granted because the entire state has been exposed to the news coverage, not just the county in which the trial is occurring, Kaye said.
Kaye said a change of venue is more likely to be granted if the prosecution has contributed to the publicity or has made provocative statements in public, something that he said happens rarely.
“By now there have been enough cases for decades where it’s clear that prosecutors ethically and legally should not make those kinds of statements to inflame the public,” Kaye said. Prosecutors, he said, “generally understand that they are constrained legally and ethically.” For that reason – and because a change of venue is so expensive – judges seldom grant such a motion, he said.
More common than change of venue is the less costly option of change of venire — choosing jurors from outside the county holding the trial, according to Matt McClenahen, a State College-based criminal justice lawyer.
McClenahen said he had requested a change of venire only once in his career. That was in the trial of his client Noel Gomez, for the 2004 attempted murder of a pregnant woman in York County.
McClenahen said Gomez was mentally ill and shot the woman “for no reason other than he was insane.”
The woman survived and gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but the case attracted media attention because her husband was serving in Iraq at the time.
Rather than ruling on the change of venire request, the judge allowed for the attorneys on both sides to question prospective jurors individually and in private rather than in a group.
McClenahen said that helped prevent the jurors from being influenced by groupthink and he was able to choose a jury from York.
McClenahen predicted a change of venire in the Frein case.
“He has to have an out-of-county jury, absolutely,” McClenahen said. “I think Pike County is so small in population, and, you know, Pike County people are not like New York people. New York people are used to being the center of attention for the world. Pike County people are not.”
A year after the murder of Dickson, opinion among Pike residents is mixed on whether Frein can receive a fair trial in the county.
Preston Ehrler said Frein could receive a fair trial here. He said a change of venue would have no effect on the trial, because so many people have heard about the case through news reports. “Even if they moved it out of state, people would still be familiar with the story,” he said.
Ehrler said most residents have put the case behind them, and people mostly just feel sadness for the family of Dickson.
Robin Gruen agreed that Pike County residents are ready to move on. And any possible bias among jurors is not going to be any worse in Pike than it is in any other county in the area, making a change of venue pointless, Gruen said.
“I think he could get a fair trial, I think anyone could get a fair trial,” Gruen said. “I think there’s enough intelligent people in this county to make a fair decision.”
Chris Jones said that in general, “the temperature of this has definitely gone down.” He doesn’t think the location of the trial would make much of a difference as to whether Frein is determined guilty or innocent, because of the overwhelming amount of evidence against him.
Others disagree, including Dori Stewart, who said too many potential jurors would know too much about the case.
Dawn Cuccio said she would like to see the entire episode end with Frein being tried outside of Pike County, an area where she said a fair and impartial jury could not be found.
“I think my opinion is probably not that popular,” Cuccio said. “I think they want to see him tried here, and it’s almost like they want to be a part of the process of him being tried here and convicted. But the law is the law, and I think that everyone until proven guilty deserves that right.”