Murder verdict stands
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has upheld the conviction and sentence in a Carbon County murder case.
The three-judge panel of the court ruled that Ernest Troy Freeby, 37, of Lansford, got a fair trial and that the sentence of life without parole was appropriate.
Freeby was convicted by a jury on Jan. 30, 2012, of first degree murder in the death of his wife, Edwina Aiteno Onyango, 34, a native of Kenya. The trial began with jury selection on Jan. 9, with testimony beginning on Jan. 10, and concluding with the verdict. It was one of the longest criminal trials in the county in recent history.
The case was unique in that Onyango's body has never been found.
Freeby did not testify at the trial.
In his appeal, filed by attorneys Paul Levy and George Dydynsky of the public defenders' office, four issues were raised.
• Was the evidence presented by the commonwealth sufficient to convict Freeby of first degree murder and tampering with evidence?
• Was the weight of the evidence presented by the commonwealth such as would lead a reasonable jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Freeby was guilty of first degree murder and tampering with evidence?
• Did the court commit fatal error when it admitted a statement of Julianne Sneary described as a "quip" that Freeby made to her about 'killing' Onyango about one year before the victim's disappearance?
• Did reversible error occur during questioning of the commonwealth's witness Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, which questioning was contrary to the court's clear directions during trial and which elicited an extremely prejudicial statement by the witness that a homicide occurred?
The state court wrote, "The trial court properly concluded that the testimony and circumstantial evidence presented was sufficient to convict Freeby of first degree murder and tampering with evidence."
The court noted, from an opinion filed by President Judge Roger N. Nanovic II, who presided at the trial, that evidence established, "Freeby was the last person to see Edwina alive; the circumstances of her disappearance and the results of the investigation to find her suggested death; Freeby had a motive and expressed a reason for killing Edwina; and subsequent to her disappearance, Edwina's blood and hair was found in sufficient quantity throughout Freeby's basement to indicate a seriously bodily injury."
The state court also ruled that the testimony clearly established that Freeby knew an official investigation into his wife's whereabouts was in progress and once he was made aware of the investigation, but before police searched his home, he painted the steps leading to the basement and the coal bin door.
The court added, "Moreover, between the first and second searches of his home, Freeby removed and disposed of between eight to 10 inches of soil from the floor of the coal bin, as well as the bloodstained two-by-four. In light of this evidence, together with that previously discussed, the jury was able to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Freeby tampered with evidence."
In addressing the second allegation concerning the weight of the evidence, the state court refers to the opinion of Nanovic and adopts its conclusion that the verdict was not against the weight of the evidence and quotes details from the trial court's opinion.
Concerning the testimony of Freeby's longtime girlfriend, Julianne Sneary, about his statement made a year before the disappearance, the state court writes, "The trial court properly concluded that the challenged testimony consists of evidence probative of Freeby's state of mind and is clearly relevant to determining whether Freeby killed his wife and whether he intended to do so."
The state added, "The trial court properly concluded that there was no error in failing to declare a mistrial because Dr. Mihalakis's remark in no way deprived Freeby of a fair and impartial trial."
In final conclusion, the state court writes, "After our review of the parties' briefs, the record, and the relevant law, we rely on the Honorable Roger N. Nanovic's rule 1925(a) opinion in affirming the trial court's order."
Onyango disappeared on Dec. 9, 2007, and was first reported missing on Dec. 10 by family members. She was last seen at Freeby's in home in Lansford on Dec. 9. The two married in 2001 but were living apart for some time. Freeby had entered into a new relationship with another woman and had three children with her.
Freeby told investigators at the time that Onyango came to his home on Dec. 9 to get a phone bill. He also said she left a car with him which he jointly owned with her. He said he made numerous calls to her cell phone after that date to contact her but never could.
The trial included testimony from about 60 witnesses, most of them for the commonwealth. There was also witness testimony of DNA collected in the case from experts in the field along with experts in blood patterns. That testimony supported the state police probe which indicated Freeby killed his wife in the coal bin in the basement of his home and then disposed of the body.
State police and experts called by District Attorney Gary F. Dobias established blood stains and patterns in the basement area and coal bin in particular, compared to a sample taken from one of the victim's brothers, were hers.
Dobias praised the state police for their tireless effort in investigating the case. At the time of sentencing, on May 14, 2012, Dobias called the crime one of the worst types to come before a prosecutor. Dobias said that Freeby never expressed any concern about the whereabouts of his wife.
Dobias said Freeby did not cooperate at all with state police in the investigation of her disappearance. Dobias added at the sentencing proceeding that Freeby, "taunted investigators, tampered with evidence, misled police and lied to them."
The defense can appeal the decision.