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Attorneys say Fred Freeman, in prison 32 years, is innocent

May 18, 2018

Fred Freeman
Credit Project Innocence

Fred Freeman was 25 when a jury found him guilty of gunning down 20-year-old Scott Macklem in a Port Huron parking lot in 1986.   

He never saw the verdict coming, figuring the unfairness of the trial would be so obvious to the jury it would come back with "not guilty," along with a tongue-lashing for the prosecution. 

As soon as Freeman got over the shock of his conviction, he began filing appeals, first in state courts and then in federal courts.

Eventually, he got help from attorneys who specialize in innocence cases. But more than three decades later, he is still behind bars.

"It's terrifying what they can do to you," Freeman says. "And it's terrifying that once they've done it and you're caught in the gears of the machine, it's almost impossible to get back out again."

An unfair trial

Attorneys who've worked on Freeman's case say the St. Clair County prosecutor used doctored and perjured evidence and that Freeman's defense attorney was incompetent. The attorney was a cocaine addict who was later disbarred.

Let's start with the often bizarre testimony of the prosecutor's star witness. Crystal Merrill was the victim's girlfriend, and a former girlfriend of Freeman's.

Merrill was nowhere near the scene of the crime. But she claimed Freeman was obsessed with her, and had threatened to kill Macklem, even though Merrill didn't start dating the victim for months after her breakup with Freeman.

She also said Freeman, a martial arts student, was an incredibly scary and violent guy who belonged to a secret spy organization and who had listening devices in his car.  

Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney Dave Moran says Merrill's character assassination of Freeman was off the charts.

"He's like Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs," scoffs Moran. "He's this guy with these amazing incredible powers -- the ninja warrior with the mind control."

Moran says any halfway competent attorney would have objected to Merrill's testimony. Freeman's defense counsel, David Dean, didn't. 

Moran says there's a reason judges aren't supposed to allow attacks on a defendant's character. It distracts the jury from a weak case.

"(The thinking is) if we can make the jury hate him, then maybe they'll convict him anyway," says Moran.

More mistakes by Freeman's attorney

Defense counsel Dean also failed to call Freeman's fiance, Michelle Woodworth, to the stand. 

Woodworth would have testified that it was Merrill who was obsessed with Freeman, not the other way around. That Merrill was angry when Freeman broke up with her. And that she, Woodworth, was with Freeman at the exact hour of the murder.

"We were together, and we woke up that morning, I think around 9 o'clock or so," says Woodworth. "We got up and we showered and got ready, we had breakfast and got ready to go into town that day."

Town being Escanaba, a seven-hour drive from where the murder happened.

But even without Woodworth, multiple alibi witnesses testified that Freeman was in Escanaba, 450 miles away, at noon that day, which would have made his presence in Port Huron at 9 a.m. impossible.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

The alibi witnesses gave the prosecutor, Robert Cleland, a dilemma. (Cleland is now a federal district judge in Detroit.) If Freeman was in Escanaba three hours after the murder, how in the heck did he get there so fast?  

So Cleland put his own private pilot on the stand, never telling the jury he was Cleland's own personal pilot.

The pilot speculated that Freeman somehow chartered a plane in Escanaba; flew down to Port Huron, where a car was waiting for him; drove to the parking lot where he found the victim; killed him; drove back to the plane; and returned to Escanaba in time for his noon martial arts class.

"There's absolutely no evidence any of that happened," says Innocence Clinic attorney Dave Moran. "It's pure fantasy."

Prosecutor Cleland also had two witnesses who said they saw Freeman at the scene of the crime. It turns out they identified Freeman based on an unfair photo lineup, which made Freeman's photo stand out starkly.

Later, at trial, the jury was shown doctored photos, which made the lineup seem fair.  

It appears that police deliberately withheld this information from Freeman and his appeals attorneys until 2008, when an investigator found the actual lineup photos in his police file, after authorities had claimed multiple times they did not exist.

Cleland also put a witness on the stand who claimed Freeman had confessed to him in a jail cell they shared.

Years later, the man recanted, saying he was given gifts and leniency in sentencing in exchange for the perjured testimony.

Only two ways now Freeman can become a free man

Many of the things that happened during trial have already been considered by the courts, and rejected as grounds for a new trial or release.

Now, this many years after the verdict, attorneys have a limited number of arguments they can make in a final appeal. One is that he's clearly innocent. The other is he didn't get a fair trial -- because the jury was never told the police used an unfair photo lineup to place Freeman at the scene of the crime.

Subsequent St. Clair County prosecutors and Michigan attorneys general insist Freeman is a dangerous and guilty man. They say Freeman manipulated alibi witnesses during the trial. They say he has also manipulated all of the many attorneys and investigators who've worked on his appeals.  

Imran Syed is another of Freeman's Innocence Clinic attorneys. He thinks the county and state may have other reasons for opposing Freeman's release. 

"The immense ripple effect of admitting that something went wrong in this case I think is what has deterred things from happening," says Syed, "and I'm sure some of it has to do with the fear of civil liability."

Freeman's last chance legal appeal is now before a judge in Kentucky.  If that is denied, there is only one other way he could avoid the fate of dying in prison: a pardon from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.