Niagara Gazette

December 20, 2012

Insanity defense coming for teen charged in 5-year-old's death

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — A Falls teen, accused in the murder of a 5-year-old girl, may use an insanity defense.

Defense attorney Robert Viola has notified both prosecutors and Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III that he is looking at using "psychiatric evidence" in the trial of John Robert Freeman Jr. The Falls teenager faces charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in the slaying of Isabella Tennant.

By law, if Viola wants to use an insanity defense at Freeman's trial, he must tell the judge and prosecutors in the case during the early stages of the proceedings. Viola made that notification in a motion filed last week.

Second Assistant District Attorney Holly Sloma told Murphy that prosecutors had "questions" about Viola's possible use of psychiatric evidence. She also raised concerns about potential delays in Freeman's trial posed by the need to involve psychiatric experts.

"(Viola) has indicated it could be five to six months before the expert of his choice could meet with Mr. Freeman," Sloma said. "We would object to that amount of time being needed for the evidence to be gathered."

Sloma reminded Murphy that, "The people are ready for trial."

A trial for Freeman, and his co-defendant Tyler Scott Best, is set for early February.

Freeman, 18, of the Falls, and Best, 20, of Buffalo, have each pleaded not guilty in the slaying of Tenant. Best is charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence.

Murphy also expressed concern about the length of time Viola said he would need to have the psychiatric testing on his client done. Viola said a forensic psychologist from Children's Hospital has already examined Freeman.

Based on that examination, Viola said he was advised that further testing and an examination should be done by an Amherst-based neuro-psychologist. That expert told Viola she would need until April to complete her work.

Murphy said he would "call the doctor" to see if he could "speed up the process." 

"I have concerns about a delay of six months (in this case)," Murphy said.

Tennant was reported missing about 6:20 a.m. on Aug. 27, when patrol officers were called to her great grandmother's home in the 400 block of Sixth Street. The great grandmother told police Isabella had disappeared overnight.

Freeman has been described by members of Tennant's family as a “close” and “trusted” friend. They also said that it was not uncommon for him to be in the great grandmother’s home and be around Isabella without supervision.

While detectives questioned Freeman, Best arrived at Falls police headquarters and told investigators he had information about Tennant's disappearance. He then led police to a trash can in the alley behind 531 Third St., where Tennant's body was found.

Investigators have said they are convinced that Freeman was the killer and Best only helped to dispose of Tennant's body.

It's believed Freeman may have provided some motive for the killing in a statement he made to Falls Police detectives. Both detectives and prosecutors have declined to comment on the motive for the murder.

An autopsy on Tennant's body, conducted by the Erie County Medical Examiner, concluded the cause of death as "asphyxiation due to mechanical obstruction of (her) airway and compression of the neck."

In a statement released by Falls police after the teens were charged, detectives said, “At this time we believe Freeman killed Isabella with his bare hands." Investigators also said there were some signs of "trauma" on Tennant’s body, but “no evidence of sexual abuse.”

NIA Freeman mug 122112 John Freeman Insanity defense