Covington pleads guilty of triple murder after reinstating attorneys

Edward Covington waives a jury trial and leaves it to a judge to decide his fate, possibly execution.
Published October 24 2014
Updated October 28 2014

TAMPA — Calling his decision to fire his attorneys on the second day of his trial "impulsive behavior," a Lutz man accused of murdering three people reinstated his attorneys and pleaded guilty Friday to all of the charges against him.

In graphic detail, former prison guard Edward Covington admitted to stabbing to death his girlfriend Lisa Freiberg, 26, and her children, 7-year-old Zachary and Heather Savannah, 2, on Mother's Day in 2008. Claiming to be fully aware that his life is at stake, Covington, 42, waived his right to a jury in the second phase of his trial and placed his fate in the hands of Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge William Fuente.

Charged with three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of abuse of a dead body and one count of animal abuse, the most generous sentence Covington could receive is life in prison without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 3.

"You're absolutely sure this is what you want to do, to let me decide completely?" Fuente asked him on Friday.

"Yes sir," Covington replied, adding that he had little confidence in the jury. "I believe I will get a more fair judgement from you, weighing all the facts."

The facts in Covington's case had barely begun to come out on Thursday, the second day of what was supposed to be a three-week trial, when he abruptly dismissed his public defenders. He called them ineffective and announced his intention to plead guilty. The victims' family had waited years for justice, he told the judge, suddenly empathizing with people he swore at and called liars a day before. "Six years is long enough."

His declarations stunned attorneys and spectators, but he said they were rooted in years of debate about whether to accept responsibility for attacks he claims not to fully remember or proceed with the insanity defense, as his attorneys had hoped.

On Friday morning, flanked by the public defenders he fired the day before, Covington appeared before Fuente again. Without the shirt and slacks provided by his attorneys, he wore an inmate's red jumpsuit and a troubled expression. This time, he said that letting his attorneys go was a hasty decision — the product of mental illness — and he would reinstate them on the condition that his medications were changed. The judge readily agreed.

Questions about Covington's mental health have hung over his case since his arrest and the revelation that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 15. Before accepting his guilty plea, Fuente ordered that two doctors evaluate Covington to determine whether he was competent to plead guilty in a death penalty case. At least one of them found he was not.

But after six years of representing Covington, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said she and the other attorneys who worked on his case believed he was competent. They approved of his decision, she said flatly, without a hint of the ruefulness one might expect from someone who has spent over half a decade on a defense, only to have the defendant shrug it off.

After his guilty plea was accepted and prosecutor Jay Pruner read a statement of the facts in the case, Covington piped up again to voice his disagreement with a series of seemingly irrelevant details. He was ready to claim responsibility, he said, but he wanted to correct the record. In his telling, the scale and perverse nature of the crime would only worsen.

Prosecutors said that all three victims died from stab wounds, but Covington maintained that he choked Lisa Freiberg to death. After he stabbed her children — "There was no hammer being used. I remember using a knife," he said — he returned to his girlfriend's corpse.

"I remember having a conversation with Lisa about feeding the dog," he said. "I don't know how long this conversation lasted, but she was already dead."

Investigators found the bodies covered with dog food. Covington said the bag had slipped as he tried to feed Duke, the family's German shepherd. It was unclear whether Duke, also killed by Covington, was dead at that point.

This story has been revised to correct the names of the two children who were stabbed to death.