Jury selection has begun in a West Chester courtroom in the trial of the man accused in a deadly ambush at a Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Pike County that triggered one of the most massive manhunts in the nation's history.
Eric Frein, 33, is charged with first-degree murder, terrorism, and other crimes in the death of Cpl. Bryon Dickson and the shooting of Trooper Alex Douglass at the Blooming Grove Barracks in September 2014.
For 48 days, enlisting helicopters and armored vehicles, more than 1,000 law enforcement officials searched the Poconos for 48 days for the shooter.
Frein's lawyers successfully sought to have an out-of-county jury hear the case, and the state Supreme Court selected Chester County. The jurors chosen in West Chester will go to Milford for the start of the trial, scheduled for April 3, and will remain there for the trial's duration.
But even with an out-of-town juror pool, experts said, lawyers could face challenges in selecting a jury.
"You've got a double-barrel problem here: it's a death-penalty case and a very high-profile case," said David Rudovsky, a criminal defense attorney and University of Pennsylvania law professor.
The 2014 shooting and the manhunt that followed received national media attention as the search virtually shut down a region of the state during the fall-foliage tourist season.
Police released attention-grabbing details such as the discovery of soiled diapers and Serbian cigarettes that police believed Frein left in the woods, his status as a self-styled survivalist, and the bomb-making materials police found at his parents' home in Canadensis that caused police to fear for their lives while searching the woods.
Potential jurors will be asked whether they had heard about, and have opinions about, the case. But simply knowing about Frein or following media coverage is not typically reason enough to exclude a juror, said Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor.
"That's not the test -- if you've never heard of it," Epstein said. "The test is, what did you hear and did it strongly shape an opinion?"
Even if they followed the case, Chester County residents are less likely to have been personally affected by it. In the Poconos, residents experienced school cancellations, police roadblocks, and searches of their yards and garages. Frein was found on an abandoned runway after a seven-week search.
Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin said this week that the judge "appropriately dealt" with the publicity the case got by calling for an out-of-county jury.
"We're looking forward to starting jury selection and getting the trial underway," Tonkin said.
Frein's lawyers, Michael Weinstein and William Ruzzo, did not return messages seeking comment.
As for the death penalty, potential jurors will be dismissed if they are morally opposed to it. That could remove a substantial portion of the jury pool; 42 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center.
"That tends to negatively affect the defense side," Rudovsky said, citing studies that have indicated that people opposed to the death penalty are also more likely to be skeptical of the case presented by prosecutors.
Although Gov. Wolf placed a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania in 2015 and Pennsylvania has executed only three prisoners since 1978, death-penalty trials continue.
More so than his innocence or guilt, the focus of Frein's trial is likely to be whether he should be put to death.
The evidence against him appears strong: Prosecutors say he left a journal entry at a campsite during the manhunt that describes the deadly ambush in chilling detail. And in a letter to his parents that police say they recovered from Frein's computer, he described the shooting as an attempt to start a revolution.
Pike County Judge Gregory H. Chelak has yet to rule on the use of perhaps the strongest evidence: a video-recorded confession Frein gave to police the night he was arrested. His lawyers have argued that the confession violated his constitutional rights because questioning continued after he said he did not want to talk to police.
If the jurors find Frein guilty, the trial would move into another phase, in which prosecutors make the case for putting him to death, and defense lawyers provide mitigating factors about his life that suggest he does not deserve execution.
But, legal experts said, his lawyers will likely attempt to make a case against the death penalty from the start of the trial, by providing information about Frein and his background.