Applying for freedom

Aug 22, 2007 at 12:00 am

With his appeals in state court exhausted and a last-ditch motion lingering in federal court, Fredrick Freeman is hoping one other avenue could get him released from Michigan prisons: a commutation or pardon from the governor. He's one of a skyrocketing number of Michigan prisoners requesting such action this year.

Freeman, 44, is 20 years into his life sentence for the first-degree murder of Scott Macklem, who was shot to death in the parking lot of St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron in 1986.

No physical evidence tied Freeman to the shooting. An eyewitness, under questionable circumstances, placed Freeman at the scene. And a jailhouse snitch testified Freeman had confessed, but then the snitch, who received favors from prosecutors, recanted his claim. All this and more has drawn legal, investigative and public support for Freeman.

In a step toward possible commutation, Freeman's case is being considered by Michigan's newly formed Executive Clemency Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to the state Parole Board and ultimately Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Granholm's office recommended Freeman's case to the council for review, spokeswoman Liz Boyd says.

The council, which examined Freeman's request at its meeting last week, will make a recommendation for or against the merit of Freeman's claim to the Michigan Parole Board. The council's decisions are not necessarily public, says Russ Marlan, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, declining to say what happened to Freeman's application. If the parole board decides a prisoner's case has merit, it will hold hearings.

The council's seven members represent crime victims, the public and law enforcement; a staff person from the Department of Corrections assists them. At their monthly meeting in August they considered 25 requests for clemency.

Since its formation in February, the council has helped inspire an unprecedented number of requests for clemency, Marlan says. So far this year, the state has received 1,006 commutation requests compared to 358, 338 and 377 in each of the previous three calendar years.

"We've gone out and publicly stated that we would be reviewing certain segments of the prisoner population for commutation or parole," Marlan says, referencing pressure to save money within the prison system. "We've publicly said that we'd be evaluating prisoners with medical issues for commutation or parole. Then the governor created the Executive Clemency Advisory Council so all three of those things have caused prisoners themselves to submit more applications."

In Michigan, any prisoner may apply for a pardon or commutation of sentence to the state's Parole Board, which reviews the applications and makes recommendations to the governor. Public hearings must be held before the board makes a recommendation for executive clemency. Victims, their families or other interested persons who have told the Department of Corrections Office of Crime Victim Services they want information about prisoners — including notification of parole hearings — will receive updates.

If the governor grants a commutation, the prisoner's sentence is reduced to the number of years served and the prisoner goes on parole. If the governor pardons someone, the sentence is effectively voided and the prisoner is freed.

A pardon implies society's forgiveness. A commutation says justice is not served by keeping the prisoner locked up.

Overall, prisoners' requests for clemency from Michigan's governors have had varying success with the last three administrations even as the prison population has grown and pressures to control costs have increased. Granholm, a Democrat in the first year of her second term, has granted 12 commutations and one pardon. John Engler, a three-term Republican, pardoned nine prisoners and commuted the sentences of 34 others. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat in office for eight years, issued five commutations and one pardon just days before he left office in 1990. He issued one other commutation during his tenure.

"Liberal politicians must have one conservative issue to be electable. Often it becomes crime," says Ron Bretz, a professor at Cooley Law School in Lansing and president of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.

William Milliken, a Republican who served from 1969 to 1982, commuted 94 sentences and pardoned another 23 prisoners.

"It's an extraordinary power that a governor has," Milliken says. "It's something a governor has got to do, be willing to take a chance and the possibility of public criticism for this phrase 'soft on crime,' and do it."

Nationally, the number of commutations granted varies widely by state. A 2003 report by the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., found the nearly 2,000 commutations granted by former Gov. Bill Janklow led the nation from 1995-2003. Michigan during that time had 31, putting it 11th highest on the list. Three states had no commutation records — New Jersey, Wisconsin and Rhode Island — and 14 states' governors did not grant any commutations, the newspaper found.

Historical perspective

The first Michigan prisoner whose sentence was commuted is noted simply as "J.F.M." in state records. J.F.M. had served six years and five months for first-degree murder when released from Jackson Prison in 1861.

A century ago, Gov. Fred Warner in 1907 released 18 prisoners who had been convicted of crimes ranging from statutory rape to sodomy to highway robbery to wife abandonment. Five of them had been convicted of murder, according to records at the Michigan Archives.

Of the 72 Michigan prisoners sentenced to life who received executive clemency during the 19th century, 47 of them — or 65 percent — had committed murder, according a 1928 report from the Pardon Division of the Executive Office.

Gov. George Romney commuted the sentences of 107 inmates during his six years in office in the mid-1960s. Several of those were for first-degree murder.

Milliken granted commutations almost exclusively for men with first-degree murder convictions.

At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, Blanchard and Engler used commutations to set aside sentences of several people convicted under drug laws that required mandatory life imprisonment for delivery, possession or conspiracy to possess 650 or more grams of certain drugs including cocaine. The law was eventually revised.

In nearly five years in office, Granholm has granted a dozen, all for medical reasons. Seven of them have since died, according to Department of Correction records.

The most famous of her commutations was Jack Kevorkian, the assisted suicide doctor who served nearly a decade of a 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. He was released in June after the Parole Board took into account his declining health. His attorney has said he suffers from hepatitis C and diabetes.

Granholm earlier this year established the Executive Clemency Advisory Council and asked members to give priority to applications from sick inmates as well as elderly prisoners who were convicted of nonviolent crimes, Boyd says. Prisoners who could be deported are also a priority.

The council has considered 140 cases so far. Of the first 115, the council decided 85 had merit and forwarded them to the Parole Board. From there, the parole board reviews them. Of the 85, the board decided to hold hearings on 33 of them. Three public hearings have been held, but the board has not yet made any recommendations to the governor, according to Marlan.

Noting that Granholm's experience as a prosecutor — she was Michigan's attorney general before becoming governor — might foster a reluctance to release prisoners, Milliken, for his part, still thinks she should be releasing more prisoners.

"I've urged our current governor to use it in a couple of instances and to use it generally but she has not used this extraordinary power as much as I think she should or any governor should," Milliken says. "She's in her last, final term. She ought to use it."

Boyd says the governor doesn't have any immediate plans for a commutation schedule in the next few years.

"Does she plan to grant more commutations during her final term? I can't answer that question," Boyd says.

She acknowledges Freeman's clemency application — which is based on his assertion of innocence, not the other conditions the governor has prioritized — was sent to the council from the governor's office. But she won't say it indicates any special attention to his case.

"We look at cases on their individual merits," Boyd says.


To read our recent two-part series on Fredrick Freeman's case, please see Reasonable doubt: Part I.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]