Commonwealth v. Frein, 745 CAP

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation206 A.3d 1049
Decision Date26 April 2019
Docket NumberNo. 745 CAP,745 CAP
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Eric Matthew FREIN, Appellant

206 A.3d 1049

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Eric Matthew FREIN, Appellant

No. 745 CAP

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued/Submitted: May 17, 2018
Decided: April 26, 2019



206 A.3d 1054

Eric Matthew Frein appeals the judgment of sentence of death imposed by the Pike County Court of Common Pleas following his convictions by a jury of first-degree murder,1 first-degree criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer,2 criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder and criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer,3 assault of a law enforcement officer in the first degree,4 terrorism,5 weapons of mass destruction,6 discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure,7 possessing instruments of crime,8 and recklessly endangering another person.9 For the reasons that follow, we affirm Appellant's judgment of sentence.

At approximately 10:45 p.m. on Friday, September 12, 2014, shortly before completing his 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift, Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Bryon K. Dickson, II entered the Blooming Grove police barracks in Pike County through the public lobby and went into his office. After several minutes, he left his office and entered the communications room located near the front of the barracks and wished Nicole Palmer, a police communications operator who was just beginning her shift, a good night. Corporal Dickson then exited the communications room and walked through the lobby on his way out of the barracks. Palmer, who had answered a telephone call, heard a gunshot and looked out the communications room window, where she observed Corporal Dickson lying motionless on the concrete just outside the lobby doors. Palmer immediately entered the lobby, at which time she heard another gunshot. She opened the lobby doors and asked Corporal Dickson what had happened, and he mouthed the words "help me." N.T. Trial, 4/4/17, at 119. Palmer retreated into the lobby and attempted to call 911. She opened the lobby doors and again asked Corporal Dickson what had happened, and he stated, "I've been shot. Drag me inside." Id. at 121. Palmer then saw Police Communications Operator Christine Donahue in the communications room and instructed her to call 911.

Around that same time, Trooper Alex Douglass, who was scheduled to work the

206 A.3d 1055

11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift beginning that night, arrived at the Blooming Grove police barracks in a marked police vehicle along with three other state troopers. While the other troopers entered the barracks, Trooper Douglass took a gym bag to his personal vehicle in the parking lot. As he placed the bag in his car, he heard a loud noise. He looked towards the front of the barracks and observed Corporal Dickson lying on the ground. He drew his weapon and approached Corporal Dickson. As Trooper Douglass reached Trooper Dickson, Trooper Douglass was shot in the hip. Trooper Douglass successfully pushed his way into the barracks, where he attempted to crawl out of view. Eventually, two other troopers dragged Trooper Douglass from the lobby to the interior of the barracks. Trooper Douglass subsequently was transported to a nearby school, where a helicopter was waiting to take him to the hospital; he survived.10

In order to reach Corporal Dickson, other officers who were present in the barracks drove a patrol vehicle from the back of the barracks to the front. Utilizing ballistic shields, officers were able to drag Corporal Dickson into the barracks, where they began CPR and attempted to use an AED. Upon their arrival, EMS workers attended to Corporal Dickson for a short time, but their efforts were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead. The autopsy of Corporal Dickson indicated that he suffered two gunshot wounds, one in his upper right chest, and a second in his shoulder. Each of the wounds was fatal.

With the identity and the whereabouts of the shooter still unknown, members of the Forensic Services Unit ("FSU") of the Pennsylvania State Police arrived at the Blooming Grove police barracks at approximately 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 13, 2014 to process the crime scene. They recovered, inter alia , three projectiles from the front of the barracks, including the two bullets that killed Corporal Dickson and the one that severely injured Trooper Douglass. In a wooded area across the street from the police barracks, the FSU recovered four empty .308 caliber rifle casings with the head stamp "AFF 88."11 In this same wooded area, the FSU observed one tree that appeared to have been hit by a bullet, and another tree in which a bullet was lodged. Using a laser, the FSU determined that the projectiles found at the barracks and removed from the tree were fired from the area in the woods where the casings were found. N.T. Trial, 4/5/17, at 175-78.

On Sunday, September 14, 2014, a man walking his dog in the area discovered a green Jeep Cherokee Sport vehicle stuck in a retaining pond off Route 402, approximately 2 to 3 miles from the Blooming Grove police barracks. When he looked inside the Jeep, he observed an open gun case and various military supplies, and he notified the state police. During a search of the vehicle, the police recovered the following items: a registration card identifying the owners as E. Michael and Deborah L. Frein, Appellant's father and mother; an invoice and receipt for classes at Northampton

206 A.3d 1056

County Community College with Appellant's name and home address; an expired Pennsylvania driver's license issued to Appellant; a tube of camouflage paint; a pack of Drina brand cigarettes; a small "mini mag" flashlight; a brown paper bag containing 5 packs of cigarettes; an empty water bottle; two cigarette butts, one of which later was determined to contain Appellant's DNA; and a wallet with a chain attached to a key ring. The wallet contained, inter alia , a current Pennsylvania driver's license issued to Appellant; Northampton Community College and East Stroudsburg University photo I.D. cards issued to Appellant; and a credit card and social security card with Appellant's name. On the floor in the back of the vehicle where the vehicle jack is located, police discovered two empty rifle casings with the head stamp "AFF 88." Police also recovered from the vehicle a faded black hooded sweatshirt; a shooting range permit issued to Appellant; a black rifle case; and a green military satchel with handwriting on the outside. Additionally, a search of the area around the retaining pond revealed an AK-47 rifle, which contained a magazine with 27 live rounds and one round in the chamber, partially hidden under a pile of leaves, in close proximity to a camouflage backpack. On top of the backpack were two magazines of ammunition.

On September 15, 2014, police conducted a search of the residence in which Appellant lived with his parents. In the garage, police discovered in a workbench drawer expended rounds of ammunition with the head stamp AFF 88. From Appellant's second floor bedroom, police recovered, inter alia , a variety of guns; magazines of ammunition; ammunition boxes; binoculars; a radio; a box and receipt for night vision goggles; a book titled Sniper Training and Employment; an IBM Think Pad; a pack of Drina brand cigarettes; a plastic bag containing lead piping and caps, materials used in making bombs; a yellow notepad with a handwritten list of survival supplies and types of ammunition; and a handwritten list of "Things to Do."12 A massive manhunt for Appellant ensued.

On September 29, 2014, FBI Special Agent Matthew Fontaine, who was assisting in the search for Appellant, was advised there had been a cell phone "ping" in an area near Canadensis, Pennsylvania, that had not yet been cleared by members of the FBI Swat Team. Agent Fontaine ultimately discovered a campsite where there were various items covered in camouflage, including: clothing; a checkbook with Appellant's name; size 13 hiking boots (Appellant's size); .308 caliber ammunition stamped "AFF 88"; and two improvised explosive devices ("IEDs").13 Near the campsite, in an area described as a bear cave, agents located a white trash bag containing, inter alia , empty water bottles. An agent removed one of the empty water bottles, labeled Nestle Pure Life, from the bag, but left the remainder of the bag intact in an effort to have the area appear undisturbed in case Appellant returned.

The following day, another agent returned to the same area and collected, inter alia , various food items; toiletries; clothing; camping gear; and a folding shovel. He also collected the aforementioned white trash bag, which contained three

206 A.3d 1057

crumpled pages torn from a small spiral notebook. Those pages read as follows:14

Made it to camp tues.

Sept 16th

Fri Sept 12th

Got a shot around 11 pm and took it. He dropped and yelled. I was surprised at how quick I took a follow up shot on his head/neck area. He was still and quiet after. A lady was in the door way on her cell phone looking at him. Another cop approached the one I just shot. As he went to kneel I took a shot at him and jumped in the door. His legs were visible and still.

. . .

I ran back to the jeep. lots of cops were driving up and down 402. No attention was given to the woods.

I made maybe half a mile from the GL road and hit a road

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  • Commonwealth v. Britton, 55 MAP 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 22, 2020
    ...error was so insignificant by comparison that the error could not have contributed to the verdict. Commonwealth v. Frein , ––– Pa. ––––, 206 A.3d 1049, 1070 (2019). The harmless error doctrine applies to constitutional errors. Commonwealth v. Story , 476 Pa. 391, 383 A.2d 155, 163-64 (1978)......
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