By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — From his bench in a Niagara County courtroom on Friday, Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said he faced a challenge in sentencing Tyler Best.
The Buffalo teen, who pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution in the murder of Isabella Tennant, was facing a fate of anywhere from probation to state prison time.
"The murder of Isabella Tennant shocked the community with its senselessness," Murphy said. "But the question for the court is how do we make the punishment fit the crime."
The judge acknowledged that Best's role in the crime was far different from that of the confessed killer, John Freeman. Best, who was Freeman's friend, admitted to helping to dispose of Tennant's body.
Yet he also helped police to crack the case, by leading them to a garbage can in the 500 block alley of Third Street, where Tennant's body was stashed in a trash bag. Prosecutors argued Murphy should not consider Best a "hero" for telling cops where her body was.
"It seems he's been glorified as a hero and that is so inaccurate," First Assistant District Attorney Doreen Hoffmann said. "(Best) helped (Freeman) bag her. He's not a hero, he's a criminal. He didn't make one bad decision, he made a series of bad decisions."
Hoffmann argued Best had "a lot of opportunities" to tell police or others what had happened to Tennant and to "walk away" from helping Freeman dispose of her body.
"We seem to be overlooking all the wrong things he did," she said.
But Best's defense attorney, James Faso, argued that his client was "shocked" and "panicked" when his friend took him to the dead body of the little girl. He also said when Freeman fell asleep, after getting rid of the little girl's body, Best, who was 18 at the time, contacted his mother and went to police to tell them what had happened."
"I still don't understand, and probably never will, why this happened," Faso said. "And at no point has Tyler Best ever thought of himself as a hero."
Police and prosecutors always maintained that Freeman was the killer of the little girl and that Best's only role in the incident was to help dispose of the body. Investigators said Best led them to Tennant's body after he showed up at police headquarters, appearing shaken and remorseful, on the morning of Aug. 26, 2012.
Reading from a statement, written by his client, Faso told Murphy Best deeply regretted what he did,
"I'd like to extend my deepest apologies," Best wrote. "We all have done things we regret. My role in this tragedy will be the biggest regret of my life. I feel terrible about the role I played and I wish I could take it back."
Asked by Murphy if he had anything else to say, Best replied, "Again, I would like to stress my apologies to the family. This is not something I wanted to come about."
Because of his age at the time of the crime, Faso asked Murphy to find Best to be a youthful offender.
"He has no prior criminal history," Faso said. "He's never done drugs. He's never been in trouble before in his life. I doubt he will ever stand before you or any other court again."
Faso said Best grew up without a father, had drifted away from his family and had became Freeman's "best friend by default." The veteran defense attorney argued that Best should be given a chance to have a life after prison.
Murphy, ultimately, agreed. Over the objections of prosecutors and county probation officials, Murphy declared Best a youthful offender.
"I think it's unlikely you will commit crimes in the future," the judge said.
Faso said the youthful offender ruling means the case records will be sealed.
"There's no conviction now," he said. "It's like it never happened."
Murphy then sentenced Best to concurrent prison terms of 16 months to four years on the evidence tampering charge and 12 months to three years on the hindering prosecution charge.
Because he has already spent 13 months, since his arrest, behind bars, Faso said Best should be immediately eligible for parole.
"He could go up (to prison) and then come home," Faso said.
Best, now 19, could have faced a maximum prison term of seven years if he had been convicted on the two criminal charges.
Freeman, who was 16 at the time of the crime and is now 18, also pleaded guilty in the case to a charge of second-degree murder. He has been sentenced to a prison term of 22 years to life.