Niagara Gazette

April 4, 2013

Teen's admission that he killed Isabella Tennant can be used at trial

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — After two hours of denials to detectives, John Freeman Jr. confessed to killing 5-year-old Isabella Tennant after finding out that his close friend Tyler Best had led police to her body.

Now, Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III has ruled that prosecutors can use both Freeman's videotaped and written confessions at his upcoming murder trial. Freeman, now 17, faces charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in the slaying of Tennant. 

Best, 20, has been charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence. Both Freeman and Best have pleaded not guilty to those charges.

In a lengthy decision, delivered from the bench, Murphy said Freeman was first questioned by police after Tennant was reported missing from her great-grand mother's home in the 400 block of Sixth Street. She was reported missing about 6:20 a.m. on Aug. 27.

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

"It seems to the court to be good police work to interview anyone who could provide information about a missing child," Murphy said. 

Detectives first spoke to Freeman at his Sixth Street home, in the presence of his father. Then, with his father's permission, they took him to police headquarters to continue questioning him.

For two hours, Freeman denied knowing what had happened to Tennant and even told investigators that his friend, Best, might have information about her because he had seen the little girl before she disappeared.

Murphy said the "tenor" of the police questioning of Freeman changed when Best showed up and told police what he knew. Investigators have said Best arrived at police headquarters and told them 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.

"The tenor changed based on information from Tyler Best that Isabella Tennant was dead and Mr. Freeman was the killer," Murphy said. 

Detectives actually took Freeman out of an interview room where they could record what he was saying, so that they could put Best in the room and record his statement. When Freeman was brought back to the room, Murphy said he was read his Miranda rights and agreed to speak to investigators.

"(Freeman) said, "I guess so, because I already heard Tyler Best snitched," Murphy said.

 The questioning by Detective Daniel Dobrasz then intensified.

"What did you hear?" Dobrasz asked Freeman.

"That Tyler Best snitched. That Tyler Best confessed that we murdered Bella," Freeman replied. "Did he (Best) say he did it?"

"You were asked what happened, you weren't honest, your (expletive) is in a sling," Dobrasz said to Freeman. 

Freeman then told Drobrasz that he had killed the little girl.

"I guess I'm a little bit crazy," Freeman said, "I just admitted to a killing. I'm going down and it could be for life."

Dobrasz asked Freeman, "What did Tyler do?"

"Nothing," Freeman replied.

Murphy said the rest of the recorded statement included graphic details of how Tennant died.

During the interrogation, Freeman also gave investigators a DNA sample, his fingerprints and his cell phone.

Freeman's defense attorney, Robert Viola, told Murphy that he is still considering a potential insanity defense. The teen has undergone two days of evaluations and Viola said he expects to have a psychiatric report ready in three weeks.

Prosecutors are also expected to ask for an opportunity to have their own expert psychologist examine Freeman.

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."