Although the 48-day manhunt for suspected murderer Eric Frein came to a close last month, new charges against the fugitive were just released last week. The charges, two counts of terrorism, were derived from a letter that Frein allegedly wrote to his parents last year, and which he edited as recently as October of this year. Frein is charged with attacking two Pennsylvania State Troopers at the Blooming Grove barracks this past September. One trooper was killed and the other was wounded in the sniper attack. Accordingly, Frein is also charged with, among other things, first degree murder and attempted murder. Based on the response to the charges in various media outlets, adding the two counts of terrorism to Frein’s list of charges may seem counterintuitive. This new development certainly raises a number of questions: What is required for an individual to be charged with terrorism and how does Frein’s letter relate to these charges? What other domestic terrorists can Frein be compared to?
Within Pennsylvania terrorism is defined as the commission of “a violent offense” with the intent to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government.” This definition is generally consistent with the one delineated in the US Code; the Code, which notes that domestic terrorism is constrained to terrorism that has occurred primarily in the US. The statute denotes the penalty for terrorism related to a first degree felony—like the first degree murder that Frein is charged with—is a maximum prison sentence of forty years. Needless to say, the charge is not a frivolous one; if convicted, Frein could serve a combined sentence of over sixty years or even suffer the death penalty.
Before discussing the charge of domestic terrorism itself any further, it is important to look first at the letter that has gotten Frein mired in the charge. Frein’s letter is short and, as it is addressed to his parents, discusses personal thoughts that need not be discussed here. However, the portions that seem to primarily lend themselves to the terrorism charges are the first and second paragraphs. Frein discusses an abstraction of some imagined revolution and notes that “tension is high at the moment and the time seems right for a spark to ignite a fire in the hearts of men.” Frein goes on to concede that what he has done “had not been done before” and that he feels like “it was worth a try.” Regardless of whatever this may mean to Frein, it is clear where Pike County District Attorney Raymond Tonkin intuits the terrorism charges, It can be argued that Frein acted as he did in hopes of inciting some larger response from the public. These arguments are given added weight when coupled with the two bombs that were found during the manhunt that have been attributed to Frein.
In perusing a number of the media sites that have reported the story as it has progressed, it becomes apparent that many readers and commenters are expressing disbelief at the inclusion of these terrorism charges within the criminal complaint against Frein. Many question why Frein is charged with terrorism, while other compare his case to cases like that of Nidal Malik Hassan, the US Army Major and psychiatrist who killed thirteen people in the Fort Hood Shootings. Putting aside any general risk of falling into the black hole that is the online comment section, the questions raised are, at their base, valid. Terrorism in the United States has many different faces and it is hard at times to fully realize and comprehend all of them. The Department of Justice lists a number of current sources of domestic terrorism threats, which include “animal rights extremists, white supremacists, sovereign citizens, and eco-terrorists,” It also recognizes the existence of “lone wolf” threats, which may be what Frein will be labeled as. Historical instances of domestic terrorism include the Oklahoma City bombers (Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols), Ted Kaczynski a.k.a. the Unabomber, Wade Michael Page (a White Supremacist who killed 6 people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin), and, most recently, Christopher Dorner. Nidal Malik Hassan was controversially not charged with terrorism because it seemed as if his actions, although bathed in Islamic extremism, were not specifically declared as a direct result of his religious beliefs, but were due to his mental state. Even so, the Fort Hood resolution is questionable and there are numerous theories as to why Hassan was charged with some offenses and not others.
Regardless of the validity of the Frein/Hassan juxtapositions, it is important to note that the statute makes no distinction about the quantity of those harmed, nor does it even specify that the “violent offense” be murder. A violent offense, within the terms of the Pennsylvania statute, merely needs to include an act that is “dangerous to human life or property.” With this in mind, it becomes clearer how Frein’s crimes could be included among the ranks oflarge-scale massacres. It is his intent that is key to the charge of terrorism, not the amount of havoc that he wreaks. It should also be acknowledged, especially by those that are quick to question the terrorism charges, that had Frein not been arrested now, it is not clear how much more damage he could have caused. Frein does not have to murder hundreds of innocent people to be considered a terrorist; if he kills even one person with the aim to incite intimidation or coercion against the U.S. government and the American public, it is considered terrorism.
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner