Tonawanda News — LOCKPORT — After discussions that apparently began late last week, a Falls teen accused of killing a 5-year-old pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
John Freeman Jr. made the stunning plea less than an hour after Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III had ruled that his lawyer could use a so-called “insanity defense” in the case after being charged with killing 5-year-old Isabella Tennant and stuffing her body in a trash can last summer.
The sudden reversal in Freeman’s plea shocked many courtroom observers, but was hailed by Falls police detectives.
“I’m glad that he pled guilty and I’m looking forward to his sentencing,” Detective Capt. WIlliam Thomson said. “I’m surprised his (plea) changed, but it was pretty evident he was guilty from the get-go. He admitted it.”
Law enforcement sources said the possibility of a plea in the case apparently surfaced after arguments in front of Murphy last week over the proposed insanity defense.
Earlier Wednesday morning, Murphy said changes in court filings made on Monday by defense attorney Roberta Viola had convinced him that prosecutors had been given enough specifics about the planned psychiatric defense. Assistant District Attorney Holly Sloma had argued a week earlier that Viola should be barred from using an insanity defense because he hadn’t specifically indicated what mental illness Freeman suffered from.
Sloma said Viola didn’t identify “a specific psychiatric (illness)” for Freeman. She said reports, submitted by experts who examined Freeman, suggested between six and eight possible psychiatric disorders that he may have.
Viola argued that Freeman killed Tennant during an “extreme emotional disturbance.”
Neither Viola nor prosecutors would comment on the guilty plea, citing a judicial gag order on the lawyers in the case.
Murphy made no commitment on a possible reduction in sentence for Freeman.
“There isn’t enough time for what he did, in my book,” Thomson said.
The murder charge carries a maximum prison term of 25 years to life.
Freeman, 17, had been indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in the slaying of Tennant on Aug. 26, 2012.
Jury selection for a trial in is case had been set to begin on Aug. 19.
Police and prosecutors have maintained that Freeman killed the 5-year-old little girl and was then helped by his best friend, Tyler Best, in disposing of her 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 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.
Best, 18, is charged with tampering with physical evidence and hindering prosecution in the case. he is due back in court July 26.
Freeman is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 5.