MILFORD, Pa. - He eluded police for nearly two months, and has been jailed for three more. But the death-penalty trial for Eric Frein could still be more than a year away.
On Thursday, Frein pleaded not guilty to charges he plotted the ambush that killed one state trooper and wounded a second last September in nearby Blooming Grove. It was his first court appearance since prosecutors officially declared they would seek the death penalty against him.
In a brief court appearance via video feed from the Pike County prison, the self-styled survivalist remained expressionless and responded politely to County Court Judge Gregory H. Chelak.
Frein waived his formal arraignment and said he understood the charges against him, which include murder, terrorism, and possession of explosive devices.
The 31-year-old Canadensis man is accused of killing Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass outside their barracks on Sept. 12. Police also said they found two pipe bombs at Frein's campsite in Monroe County. In court filings, prosecutors have said Frein planned the shootings in a bid to stir a change in the government.
It was his first court hearing since District Attorney Raymond J. Tonkin filed notice this week that he is seeking the death penalty against Frein.
Michael Weinstein, one of Frein's defense attorneys, said he did not expect the case to go to trial until 2016. He is likely to begin filing defense motions in the case in coming weeks, and could ask for the trial to be moved out of Pike County, where residents were affected by the massive manhunt.
More than 1,000 law enforcement officers descended on Pike and Monroe Counties following the shootings, as Frein evaded capture in the woods for 48 days. "There's no question that venue is an issue," Weinstein said after the hearing.
He said his client has been cooperative at the Pike County Correctional Facility, where he is being held without bail.
"Everybody up there says he is no problem," Weinstein said. "He seems to be doing what he's told, and he is very cooperative with us."
Outside the courthouse, Tonkin said he had not considered offering a plea deal to Frein.
If Frein is convicted, Tonkin wrote in his notice to seek the death penalty, the sentencing phase would include testimony from the family, friends, and coworkers of Dickson, a 38-year-old father of two.
As Frein appeared in court, Douglass was scheduled to have hip replacement surgery, an important step in treatment for his wounds from the Sept. 12 ambush. "This is a major surgery and a major step," said Lt. Christopher Paris, commander of the Blooming Grove barracks.
Douglass was shot in the groin outside the barracks before crawling into the lobby and awaiting rescue from his colleagues. The hip replacement marked his 14th surgery since September.
Paris said he had not yet discussed with Douglass whether he would return to work.
"His spirits are upbeat," Paris said of the trooper.
After recovering from surgery at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, Douglass will spend time at a rehabilitation facility, Paris said.
On a Facebook page for supporters, Douglass' brother posted a photo of Douglass standing on crutches outside the hospital Thursday. He included a message from the trooper, who thanked those who posted supportive messages.
"I will hopefully be walking with minimal assistance after this surgery," the message said.