TAMPA — Seven years after a triple homicide that Hillsborough County's sheriff called the grisliest he had ever seen, a judge on Friday sentenced Edward Covington to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her two children.
In a rejection of defense attorneys' arguments that Covington is mentally ill and should be spared the death penalty, the judge found that death was the appropriate punishment for one of the goriest homicide cases in Hillsborough's history. Covington, 42, absorbed the sentence impassively, surrounded by stone-faced lawyers.
Outside the courtroom, Barbara Freiberg, the victims' mother and grandmother, said she approved of the judge's ruling, though she acknowledged it would likely entail years, if not decades, of appeals.
"There's a relief knowing that he's going to get what he gave my children," she said.
On May 12, 2008, Freiberg opened the door to her daughter Lisa's mobile home in Lutz and encountered a blood-soaked crime scene. Lisa Freiberg, 26, and her two children, Zachary Freiberg, 7, and Heather Savannah Freiberg, 2, had been beaten, choked and stabbed. Authorities said Covington had attacked the family with a hammer and knife. After killing the children, he dismembered their bodies.
Sheriff's deputies found Covington, a former prison guard, cowering in a closet, wearing nothing but underwear and covered in scratches and traces of blood.
Charged with three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of abuse of a dead body and one count of animal abuse for killing the family's dog, Covington sat in prison for years, waiting for his day in court. But when his trial began last fall, he stunned everyone, including the public defenders representing him, by abruptly firing them and announcing that he would plead guilty.
"I expect you to sentence me to death," he told Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente, adding that this was the sentence he would choose for himself. "I feel it's warranted. The Freibergs feel it's warranted. The state feels it's warranted. I have no problem with this."
Covington's decision to forgo a jury trial left his fate entirely with the judge and prompted Fuente to issue a stern warning. He had encountered a similar situation only once before in his career, he told Covington, and he sentenced that defendant to death.
On Friday, after more than six months of reviewing court transcripts and medical records, Fuente said the horrifying manner in which the three victims were killed outweighed the defense argument that Covington was driven by mental illness.
From the outset of the case, Covington's lawyers portrayed him as a deeply disturbed man who, at the time of the murders, was not taking prescribed medications to control his bipolar disorder.
Medical records showed that by age 15, he was taking the mood stabilizer lithium. His mother testified that throughout his teenage years and into adulthood, he swung wildly between periods of high energy and deep depression, was repeatedly hospitalized and tried to commit suicide multiple times. By the time his case went to trial, he was taking four different medications — Depakote, Seroquel, Zoloft and Klonopin.
The defense also highlighted Covington's erratic behavior in court and some of his bizarre statements, including one moment last year when he told the court that after he killed his girlfriend, he tried to talk to her 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."
Prosecutors maintained that Covington was not propelled by mental illness, but was operating under the influence of alcohol and crack cocaine, which he consumed hours before the killings.
In their final argument to the judge, prosecutors asked Fuente to weigh heavily Covington's excessive cruelty — the medical examiner deemed it "overkill."
"In one episode of unparalleled violence, Edward Covington destroyed one small, tightly knit family," they wrote.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.