LOCKPORT – John R. Freeman Jr. suffers from an assortment of mental defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, his attorney said Thursday in explaining why he intends to offer a mental health defense on a charge that Freeman strangled a 5-year-old girl and dumped her body in a stolen garbage tote.
But Niagara County prosecutors said the claims by defense attorney Robert Viola aren’t specific enough, and they want County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III to prevent any kind of psychiatric defense for Freeman.
“It’s a very serious issue,” said Murphy, who told both sides he will rule on the matter Wednesday.
Freeman, 17, of Sixth Street, Niagara Falls, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Isabella M. Tennant, the 5-year-old Cheektowaga girl who allegedly was killed Aug. 26, while Freeman was baby-sitting her in her great-grandparents’ Sixth Street home.
After the death, Freeman allegedly called a friend, Tyler S. Best, 18, of Barnard Street, Buffalo. Best went to Niagara Falls Police Headquarters the next day and told police he helped Freeman dispose of the body in the garbage tote in an alley, and told them where to find it.
Best is charged with a felony count of tampering with physical evidence.
Viola had told the prosecution last October he intended a mental health defense for Freeman, but by law, he must give some specifics.
Viola hired two psychologists to examine Freeman, but there were months-long delays in doing so.
Finally, Viola turned over reports May 31 from Dr. Louise Feretti and Dr. Luther Robinson. But he did not amend his motion for a mental health defense with details by June 7, as Murphy had ordered.
Deputy District Attorney Holly E. Sloma said Viola didn’t come across with an update until Wednesday, when he said he intended to offer a defense of not guilty by reason of “extreme emotional disturbance,” instead of “mental disease or defect.”
Sloma said Viola was claiming Freeman suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. “It manifests itself in a myriad of ways,” Viola said.
Feretti mentioned five mental disorders in her report, and Robinson named one disorder and mentioned the possibility of a second.
Fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting from heavy drinking by a mother during pregnancy, has been linked with damage to the baby’s brain, leading to mental or behavioral problems including attention deficits, impulsive behavior and poor reasoning skills.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are irreversible.”
Viola “still hasn’t linked that malady to the defense of extreme emotional disturbance,” Sloma argued. “It’s not our task to figure out his defense … how [Freeman] was under extreme emotional disturbance back in August 2012, when he murdered Isabella Tennant.”
“The people are taking the notice requirement far beyond what is necessary,” Viola said.