'Manchester by the Sea' inspired Chenango County teen's murder, DA says as trial begins
ANTHONY BORRELLI | pressconnects.com
The night of Feb. 28, 2017, Ernest Franklin and his wife, Heather, watched the Oscar-winning film "Manchester by the Sea" in their Guilford home.
After the movie ended sometime after 10:30 p.m., the couple allegedly hatched a plot to kill their 16-year-old adopted son and cover up the crime with a fire. By 1:14 a.m., Ernest Franklin had rushed to a neighbor's house across the street and asked her to call 911 as flames ripped through the Franklin home with Jeffrey still in his bedroom.
On Wednesday, nearly two years to the day after that deadly blaze, Ernest Franklin's second-degree murder trial began in Chenango County Court. Seated at a table wearing a suit and tie, with a corrections officer stationed behind him, Ernest Franklin listened as a prosecutor detailed evidence of a quickly orchestrated alleged murder plot, and as his defense lawyer argued there's enough room for reasonable doubt as to his guilt.
The first witnesses began testifying after opening statements Wednesday from the prosecution and the defense. Ernest Franklin, 36, faces up to 25 years to life in state prison if convicted by the jury.
What the prosecution says
The fire in the Franklin home on state Highway 8 happened two days after the movie "Manchester by the Sea" won Academy Awards for best actor and best original screenplay.
During a 40-minute opening speech, Acting District Attorney Michael Ferrarese told jurors Jeffrey was deaf, mute and lived with behavioral issues that created a stressful home environment. His adoption by the Franklins had been finalized in 2013.
Ferrarese argued Ernest and Heather Franklin were looking for a way to kill Jeffrey and get away with it — by February 2017, Heather was pregnant with the couple's first biological child.
"Manchester by the Sea" tells the story of a man who accidentally sets a fire that kills his children. He wasn’t prosecuted.
Ferrarese told jurors the fire began in a wood stove on the southern end of the Franklin home. Its vent pipe was in good working order, the DA said, and it's suspected that Ernest Franklin set the fire in the stove and left the stove door open so it could spread.
The fire moved through the home's southern side into the northern ceiling/attic space, then flames dropped in Jeffrey's bedroom while he was asleep, long after noxious smoke and gas would have entered, Ferrarese said.
While the fire spread, Ernest Franklin told police he was away from the house chasing down the family’s dogs.
Meanwhile, Heather Franklin allegedly drove into Norwich and surrounding areas.
She stopped at the Walmart in Norwich, returned to the vicinity near the Franklin home from 12:42 to 12:46 a.m., then drove to Price Chopper in Sidney for about 10 minutes, according to Ferrarese. Then, she drove around Bainbridge and Coventry, before returning to the fire scene by 2:18 that morning.
The prosecution's case includes efforts to reconstruct the timeline of the fire. At 12:07 a.m., a neighbor told authorities, lights were on in the Franklin home and there weren't any signs of a fire there.
A neighbor across the street dialed 911 to report the blaze after Ernest Franklin knocked on her door around 1:14 a.m., Ferrarese told jurors. Police were the first to respond, and the fire had already sealed its grip on the residence.
Ferrarese said there were "100 percent burns" to Jeffrey's body, and it was impossible for pathologist Dr. James Terzian, of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, to make a complete external examination during the autopsy.
What the pathologist didn't find, the DA said, were any signs of soot or smoke in Jeffrey's wind pipe or lungs. There was a 2 percent carbon monoxide level in his blood, but an average person's level is typically under 5 percent.
Ferrarese told jurors the investigation determined Jeffrey died as a result of "violent means" before the fire started.
Defense: 'Two sides to every story'
Standing at a podium Wednesday during an opening speech, defense lawyer Veronica Gorman painted a starkly contrasting picture of her client's relationship with his adopted son.
The Franklins had been married since April 2011, and after taking Jeffrey in, Gorman said, they never referred to him as their adopted son.
Gorman described the fire as "the worst day of 'EJ's' life."
"The allegations here are serious and upsetting," Gorman told jurors in a roughly 15-minute speech. "But there's two sides to every story."
She argued the "criminally sophisticated plan" her client allegedly carried out doesn't mesh with his "salt of the earth" personality. There was no evidence of accelerants at the fire scene, Gorman told jurors, nor were there any phone records to indicate collusion between the Franklins during the execution of the alleged crime.
Although prosecutors claim Ernest Franklin made a jailhouse confession to another inmate, the defense counters that inmate's testimony shouldn't be trusted since he stood to gain a favorable outcome for charges of selling drugs and assaulting a police officer.
Gorman told jurors Jeffrey's autopsy reports don't label the boy's death a homicide or a death by violent means. Instead, the reports say "pending further investigation."
A defense expert will further dispute the prosecution's theory, Gorman added, by testifying Jeffrey was still alive during the fire.
What happens next
Testimony from witnesses is expected to continue into March for Ernest Franklin's trial.
Heather Franklin is also under indictment on murder, arson and evidence-tampering charges.
The case against her remains pending and since April 2017, she has been out of jail on bail.