Sociopath? Wronged man? Both?

Sep 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

After 30 hours of testimony in an unusual two-day hearing, the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board is wrestling with deciding the fate of convicted murderer Frederick Freeman: Is he a dangerous man, rightfully locked up or the victim of a wrongful conviction in a 1986 shotgun slaying?

Witnesses cried: some with grief for the murder victim, Scott Macklem, some because of the abuse they say they suffered from Freeman before he was locked up. And then there were Freeman and his wife, who wept while recounting the suffering they've endured under a system they say has failed to deliver justice.

Prosecutors described how the system did work and the jury's ruling should stand. Freeman's volunteer lawyers explained the dynamics and reasons for wrongful convictions — as proven by DNA exonerations — and how they should apply in Freeman's case; they urged an examination of subtle differences between witnesses' initial statements to police and what they said at trial. Various current and former law enforcement officials supported and opposed Freeman's possible release.

Board members questioned some witnesses — Freeman and his supporters vigorously, but his opponents not nearly as harshly — and promised to give a fair review of the thousands of pages of documents that were submitted. 

The final testimony the board heard Monday at nearly midnight was that Freeman — whose case was featured in a lengthy two-part Metro Times series in 2007 and shorter articles since — is a sociopath.

Reading from a list of 15 characteristics of sociopaths he said he found on the Internet, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel described Freeman as someone who blames others for acts he committed, is a con man, acts out sexually, lacks a realistic life plan, and is overtly hostile, among other characteristics.

"The Department of the Attorney General strenuously objects to the commutation of Frederick Freeman," Rothermel said. "I believe your question of innocence was found in 1987" at trial.

Is sociopathy an explanation for how Freeman has convinced dozens of attorneys, former cops, filmmakers, civil rights advocates and a respected local broadcast journalist to take up his case? Raising the issue is certainly a continuation of the trial strategy to place his character front and center, since the investigation yielded only circumstantial support and no physical evidence or eyewitness accounts of the actual shooting. 

To Freeman and his supporters — some of whom privately admit he may indeed be a sociopath — that armchair diagnosis doesn't mean he's a killer. It's a strategy they say the police and prosecution employed immediately after the November 1986 murder of Macklem the son of the mayor of Croswell, a small town northwest of Port Huron in the St. Clair County Community College parking lot. 

With no better lead than that he had once dated a woman engaged to Macklem and that locals considered him bizarre, Freeman was the exclusive suspect. 

The investigation centered on supporting his guilt, not finding or considering other suspects, and the trial strategy, like much of the commutation hearing, was to paint him as a danger to society that jurors would want to put away, guilty or not, his supporters say.

What should be of concern, according to Freeman's team, is not only that a likely innocent man was convicted and sentenced to life, but that the real killer is free while the system that convicted Freeman hasn't made a fair re-examination of the case.

And, they say, based on what has been learned in the last two decades from DNA exonerations and what led to wrongful convictions, several elements of the case should raise serious red flags about the strength of the evidence against Freeman and lead to a re-examination of the jury's guilty verdict.

"What I find highly problematic is the speculative nature" of the case against Freeman, said David Moran, co-director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. "There are six main causes of wrongful conviction; four are present here."

He identified the prosecution's reliance on shaky eyewitness testimony, a jailhouse informant, police or prosecutorial misconduct and bad lawyering as being present in Freeman's trial. 

Moran, whose clinic is also representing Freeman in his habeas corpus appeal that is pending in U.S. District Court in Detroit, was among the dozens who spoke at the commutation hearings that lasted about 13 hours Sept. 8 and 15 hours on Monday. The board heard testimony that the chair, Barbara Sampson, said would help them decide if Freeman would be a danger to society if released, and if he is actually innocent of the murder.

"This is unusual. This is the first time since I've been on the board that we've had a hearing go more than one day," she said.

Freeman addressed the board both days, facing questions from members and drawing their ire at his long and detailed responses that, they complained, didn't necessarily provide answers.

Witnesses also included friends and members of the Macklem family, who said they live in fear of Freeman and suffer daily from the loss of Scott; and women who said Freeman abused them, and that they still fear him.

"Just because I was a jerk doesn't mean I was trying to kill everybody," Freeman told the board when he spoke in the final four hours of the hearing.

Among the speakers Monday was Lynette Lawrence-Kirk, a friend of Crystal Merrill who served as her birth coach. She said seeing Freeman at the hearing gave her the same feeling as she'd had at the trial.

"I can still remember his eyes and the coldness of his eyes. He looked like Satan," she said.

Then 23, without steady employment and living under at least two aliases, Freeman was arrested shortly after Macklem was killed. Freeman's former girlfriend, Crystal Merrill, was pregnant and engaged to Macklem. Freeman had lived outside of Port Huron earlier that year but had moved to the Upper Peninsula several weeks before Macklem's death. During the 1987 trial, Merrill spent three days on the witness stand describing Freeman's fantastic life. She said he belonged to a secret ninja organization, that he had listening devices that allowed him to hear conversations with her mother, and that he raped her on their first date, though she continued to see him for weeks and he was never charged with such an attack even after she revealed it to prosecutors. 

Other witnesses included a jailhouse informant who later said he lied when he testified that Freeman had confessed to the killing because he was given a deal in his own charges, a then-20-year-old student who identified Freeman as driving a car in the parking lot after he'd been hypnotized to help his memory, and a pilot who said Freeman could have hired a private plane to fly from the Upper Peninsula to Port Huron and back, which would explain why several alibi witnesses placed Freeman hundreds of miles away from the crime just a few hours later.

Prosecutors maintain Freeman is a dangerous man who has promoted wild conspiracy theories to explain his case — including "red herrings" as he attempts to refute their evidence — and who has a superior mind that has taken in intelligent people.

"I've watched this case progress," said St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling, who was an assistant prosecutor a decade before being elected six years ago. "Every story that has come from Mr. Freeman and his defense team has become more ridiculous."

Wendling said his predecessors warned him about the Freeman case. "If there's one priority, you make sure Fred Freeman stays in prison," Wendling says he was told. "He is the most dangerous individual that has come to St. Clair County."

The board members said they would read the written material from both sides and meet in executive session to decide what to tell the governor, said board chair Sampson, who said there isn't a set standard for how they decide, but that absolute innocence would likely need to be the consensus.

Ultimately, Gov. Jennifer Granholm will decide if Freeman's life sentence should be commuted as he's asking.

"The board merely makes a recommendation. It is up to her," Sampson said. "It's clear people are very passionate on this case."

For more than three years, Metro Times Staff Writer Sandra Svoboda has followed the Freeman case. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]