Lorrin Freeman’s Balancing Act
Fri., March 4: The trials of Wake County's DA—an institutionalist, a (kinda) reformer, a moderate, an enigma.
» Lorrin Freeman, in Profile
I mentioned last time—which was last week, sigh, because fathering a very young, very needy puppy means I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep her from biting my ankles while I work—that I was wrapping up a long, complicated piece on Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Well, it’s here.
To put a pin in how all-consuming this story has been, about an hour after it went live, I got some new information that I spent the rest of the evening chasing down. That may or may not come to anything.
For now, here is the intro. The Assembly is paywalled, but signing up for a free account should give you access to two free stories a month (if you have trouble, email me). But if you can spare $4 a month, please consider doing so. It’s not just that they paid me more for this story than any other outlet in the state would have—like they do with all their writers—it’s that they have big, exciting plans for the future. (If you’re part of a foundation or the type to do charitable giving, well, the partnership with Journalism Funding Partners is worth paying attention to.)
Without further ado:
Until Wake County’s district attorney walked through the John Chavis Community Center’s doors, Dawn Blagrove didn’t think Lorrin Freeman would show. After she arrived, Blagrove couldn’t decide whether Freeman was brave or foolish.
Emancipate NC, the progressive organization hosting the late-September forum on criminal justice reform, was a persistent thorn in her side. So was Blagrove, its director and the evening’s moderator. Two co-panelists were among her fiercest critics. The third, defense attorney Damon Chetson, was vying to unseat her. And the Southeast Raleigh crowd was anything but receptive.
A week earlier, The Assembly had reported that Freeman had indicted a police informant who allegedly fabricated heroin-trafficking charges against 15 Black men—many from this neighborhood—but not Omar Abdullah, the Raleigh detective he worked with.
Robin Mills—whose son was among those Abdullah arrested—confronted Freeman toward the end of the evening. “How can you say the cop should not be indicted? I almost lost my son for a minimum of seven and a half years!”
“Let me be very clear about something about this,” Freeman responded, her voice flat. “Even if we cannot criminally prosecute—”
“What do you mean, if?” Mills shot back.
Freeman was unfazed. (“Lorrin doesn’t even really get angry when you come after her,” Blagrove said later.) The explanations she offered—the investigation was ongoing, the bar for prosecuting Abdullah was higher than incompetence—were true. But they rang hollow against the room’s collective anger.
Freeman spent the night explaining the way things were. But the audience wanted to hear why things haven’t changed.
As she seeks a third term, Freeman faces rapidly shifting political winds. Across the country, progressive district attorneys have curbed low-level drug prosecutions, overhauled bail policies, and reduced prison populations.
Criminal justice reform advocates expect the same in Wake County and see Freeman falling short. “Disappointing would not be a harsh description,” Blagrove told The Assembly.
But Freeman’s supporters argue that she’s effected progress without incurring the backlash faced by reform-minded prosecutors in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere.
“There seems to be a strong effort on Lorrin’s part, and the DA’s office, to be engaged in the community on things that affect the big picture,” said former Chief District Court Judge Robert Rader. “Not just prosecuting this case and prosecuting the next case. But what can we do about mental health issues in the jail? How can we intervene at an earlier point?”
Drawing on extensive interviews with Freeman and dozens of her allies and critics, as well as court documents and previously unreported public records, The Assembly spent months examining the largely unknown public servant who is arguably the most powerful district attorney in North Carolina.
On the surface, her upcoming May primary will test whether Democrats in the state’s most populous county want more sweeping reforms. But the election is also a referendum on her.
Fixing the justice system, she said, requires a “constant balancing” of accountability and compliance with leniency and support. “Every day, if you’re in one of these roles, you have to be weighing those things out.”
It’s a call for institutional trust and incremental change during a time of upheaval. This spring, it’s being put to the test.
For those who prefer the tl;dr version, here are a few overarching themes:
For one of the state’s most powerful law enforcement officials—and a rumored candidate for attorney general—Freeman keeps a remarkably low profile. She is also bad at (and uninterested in) self-promotion.
One thing that separates Freeman from more progressive DAs—not just Larry Krasner in Philly and others of his ilk, but also Satana Deberry in Durham and Spencer Merriweather in Mecklenburg—is her tendency to limit her second-chance programs' reach based on her notions of accountability.
Freeman’s office has internal issues—this piece touches on some of them—but the degree to which they contribute to high turnover vs. the pandemic and longer-term issues such as low pay is hard to cipher. There is also an ongoing recruitment problem that stems at least in part from young lawyers’ concerns about being “on the wrong side of history,” as Freeman put it.
Oh, and the courts system is woefully underfunded. I may have to revisit that someday.
The district attorney’s office has lost a lot of big cases recently, including five of 12 murder trials in 2021—and two of the “wins” ended up as manslaughter convictions, which defense attorneys call victories too. (Caveat: Experts warn against using an office’s conviction rate as a success metric, and the pandemic delayed and complicated a lot of cases.)
Freeman’s beliefs on race in the justice system are … complicated: She understands that there are vast disparities. She thinks prosecutors should address implicit bias. But she doesn’t think the justice system is, per se, racially discriminatory. Rather, everything else is, and the results of all of that systemic racism reveals itself in the justice system.
It’s hard to argue her point about other systems feeding the justice system’s disparities. But whether that absolves the courts of responsibility is another matter.
This might be most important: Freeman views herself as a public servant, which in her mind makes her subservient to the institution she serves.
There’s no better example than her opposition to releasing James Blackmon, a mentally ill man who spent 35 years in prison based on a coerced confession. She told me she wouldn’t have charged Blackmon based on the evidence the cops had then—the “confession” transcripts are nauseating, and there was no physical evidence—but since trial and appellate courts had upheld the “confession” in the 1980s, Blackmon should remain locked up.
The institution takes priority over her judgment, and she is wary of viewing a 40-year-old case through the prism of modern standards.
I think Freeman’s progressive critics misunderstand her. I don’t think she acts out of political cynicism, but rather, she is the person she presents herself as being: stuck between forward-thinking and old-school, instinctively cautious and careful to seek out what she believes is the middle ground, but above all, she values and wants to protect the system.