Niagara Gazette

May 17, 2013

Deadlines set in child killing case

By Richard Pfeiffer rick.pfeiffer@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT— A frustrated Niagara County court judge said Thursday that the murder trial of a Falls teenager needs to move forward and he set some deadlines to get that done.

Judge Matthew J. Murphy III told the lawyer for John Freeman that reports from medical experts that will be the foundation for a so-called insanity defense in his case must be completed by the end of May.

“I’m a little frustrated,” Murphy said to defense attorney Robert Viola, “because you told me in December you couldn’t get (the medical reports) until May and now it’s May and we still don’t have them.”

Viola told the judge he was equally frustrated, but reminded Murphy that he had warned that May would be the earliest time for him to receive the results of psychological testing on his client.

Freeman, 17, faces charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in the slaying of 5-year-old Isabella Tennant on Aug. 26.

In late December, Viola filed paperwork with the court that would allow him to present an insanity defense in the case. Murphy said Viola’s experts need to wrap up their work so that prosecutors can review it and then conduct their own testing on Freeman.

The judge told Viola all his medical reports must be filed by 4 p.m. May 31 and gave prosecutors until July 12 to complete their review and testing. He set arguments on whether to allow Viola to use an insanity defense for July 26.

Murphy also scheduled jury selection for a trial in the case to begin on Aug. 19.

The attorney for Freeman’s co-defendant, Tyler Best, told Murphy Thursday that he will “renew” a motion to have his client’s case separated from Freeman’s murder trial. Best, 18, is charged with tampering with physical evidence and hindering prosecution in the case.

Prosecutors did not say, in court, whether or not they would oppose a separate trial for Best. However, Second Assistant District Attorney Holly Sloma told Murphy, “If (defense attorney John Faso) renews his motion for severance, it is our absolute intention to try Mr. Freeman first.”

Faso replied by saying, “I’m going to advise he court now that the (severance) motion) will be renewed.”

Best’s attorney had first asked for a separate trial in early March. At that time, Faso said request might “be somewhat premature” because Murphy was still considering whether or not he would allow statements made by Freeman to police to be used at his trial. 

Murphy has since ruled that the statements, which contain a confession to the crime, may be used at the trial. 

Faso has been unable to explain his reasoning for the request because of a gag order that bars lawyers in the case from speaking to reporters on any matters other than scheduling.

Police and prosecutors have maintained that Freeman killed Tennant and that Best’s only role in the incident was to help dispose of the body in a garbage tote. Investigators have said that Best led them to Tennant’s body after he showed up at police headquarters, appearing shaken and remorseful, on the morning of the little girl’s disappearance.

Best came to police headquarters several hours after Falls police had begun a desperate hunt for Tennant. The little girl had been reported missing from her great-grandmother’s home, in the 400 block of Sixth Street.

The great-grandmother said the little girl had disappeared overnight and had last been seen with Freeman. Freeman, then 16 and now 17, was described as a “close family friend.”

Not long after Best spoke with detectives, police made the grisly discovery of Tennant’s body. She was found dead, in a trash bag, buried in a garbage can in the 500 block alley of Third Street.