He made his own case of innocence to the state for the first time in a cramped room last week, speaking for 40 minutes with a woman he saw only on a television monitor.
"This is my one chance," Fredrick Freeman told Michigan Parole Board Chair Barbara Sampson as she typed notes and referenced files. "And I'm really nervous."
When he was arrested for murder nearly 21 years ago, Port Huron police didn't give Freeman the polygraph test he requested. He didn't testify at his trial; he says he wanted to but his defense lawyer wouldn't put him on the stand. None of his appeals in the state courts have included his testimony except in written affidavits.
But last week at the Saginaw Correctional Facility, where he's serving a life sentence for a murder he and others insist he didn't commit, Freeman focused on a TV just a few feet in front of him and articulately made his own case. On the screen, connected by video teleconferencing from Lansing, was Sampson. He wore prison blues with his ponytail neatly tied. She wore a suit with a heart-shaped pin on the lapel.
Sampson repeatedly used the phrase "OK, let's talk about ..." as she covered a series of topics. She asked Freeman about his conviction if he didn't do it and was 450 miles away at the time, why was he a suspect?
"My ex-girlfriend's little sister told police about me and they made me into one," he said. "If you look in the first two police reports, there's nothing about me."
Sampson also covered his record in prison including disciplinary incidents, mentoring experiences he's sought out, his educational accomplishments, his support outside of prison from family and friends and how he would handle freedom when many in the outside world would still consider him guilty.
Freeman told Sampson he couldn't have killed Scott Macklem on Nov. 5, 1986; he was in the Upper Peninsula at the time of the murder. He explained a decade-old "assault" ticket as self-defense: An inmate came at him with a razor blade and he hit the man on the nose with a telephone. He talked about helping younger prisoners understand "the system." He detailed his college classes while in Jackson Correctional Facility. He recited his paralegal certificates.
He choked up and got teary-eyed talking about his wife, children and other family members. He said he understands some people will always consider him the killer.
The Aug. 29 interview happened because Gov. Jennifer Granholm's new Executive Clemency Advisory Council reviewed his case and recommended that the parole board consider it. Freeman applied for clemency last year, but the parole board turned him down. The case remained open in the governor's office, and staff there this year referred it to the council after its creation.
The parole board could eventually recommend the governor grant a commutation of Freeman's sentence or a pardon.
Sampson will report her impressions from the interview to the full parole board, which will vote in executive session whether to grant Freeman a public hearing the next step in any parole process. "I can't give you a timeframe on that," she told Freeman, who has changed his name to Temujin Kensu to reflect his Buddhist faith. "I know that's probably the biggest thing you want to know right now."
Prisoners can choose a "representative" to be with them during their parole board interviews, and Freeman requested that this Metro Times reporter be present.
Traditionally, the representatives provide moral support for the inmates who are nervous, sometimes inarticulate, can forget main points they had prepared and need some proverbial hand-holding, according to Ron Bretz, professor at Cooley Law School in Lansing.
But Freeman, who has a genius IQ according to his defense attorney, doesn't have such needs. He asked Metro Times to be there to witness the interview and provide backup if needed on the facts of his case based on the reporting that went into our recent two-part series about his case ("Reasonable doubt," Aug. 1 and 8).
His wife, A'miko, supported the decision. "If they want someone to cry and beg, hell, I'll be out in the waiting room. But that is not what this is about or should be about," she wrote to us, encouraging our attendance. "He wants someone there who can say they read the transcripts, etc., and answer factual questions to back him up ... someone who has interviewed some of the people involved."
The invitation to appear at the interview presented some questions about our role as journalists. Whoever goes is officially labeled a prisoner's "representative," and that's not an accurate description of Metro Times' relationship with Freeman. Despite our reporting which has clearly detailed problems and inconsistencies with his arrest, prosecution and appeals we worried we could cross a line by being the official "representative" at the interview. Journalistically, conditions during the interview weren't perfect either. Note-taking and tape recording aren't allowed.
We asked the Michigan Department of Corrections if we could view the teleconference from Sampson's location or from a neutral site, but that request was declined by department spokeswoman Lori Farmer.
After weighing the pros and cons of attending the interview, Metro Times Editor W. Kim Heron eventually decided we should be there. "We had a vigorous debate about the fact that we technically became Freeman's 'representative' in exchange for access to a crucial and otherwise closed hearing in a case we've been reporting on extensively," he says.
"But we also warned Freeman and his wife that we couldn't do more than repeat the findings of our reporting. We couldn't, in our role, give the wide-ranging endorsements that they could expect of an unhindered advocate."
As it turned out, Freeman only needed Metro Times to provide a reminder about the team of attorneys, private investigators, former law enforcement officers and a documentary filmmaker who have advocated for him for more than a decade.
In responding to Sampson's question about his support outside of prison, Freeman choked up talking about his wife, children, grandchildren and relationships with his mother, sister and father's family that have been renewed during the last five years. He then forgot to tell Sampson about the team of professionals who have documented his defense attorney's drug use, interviewed a jailhouse snitch who admitted he lied at trial about Freeman's supposed confession, and discovered a new suspect with links to the victim.
Our involvement in Freeman's interview also included passing him some tissue provided by his prison counselor who was sitting nearby.
"I'm sorry," he told Sampson as he paused to wipe his eyes. "There's just so much I want to say."Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org