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.

Unraveling the enigma of Lorrin Freeman reveals a mess of contradictions.

She’s a successful politician who projects indifference not only to politics but to her public image. She’s an evangelist for implicit bias training who denies that the system discriminates against people of color. She’s a champion of behavioral health care whose program to help mentally ill offenders currently enrolls just 23 people.

She speaks like a reformer …

“The overwhelming majority of people who come into the justice system either have some underlying mental health issue or substance abuse issue or they’ve just done something really dumb. What we tried to do is separate out those individuals who pose a real public safety threat, and then looking at the other people, let’s craft a response.”

… until she tacks on this caveat, a defining characteristic of her prosecutorial career:

“There has to be an accountability piece. They’ve broken the law.”

No one has accused Freeman of being soft on crime. Between 2015 and 2020, she sought the death penalty more than any district attorney in the state. She opposed a bill prohibiting life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. She threw the book at a man who sold a pawn shop five stolen video games for $12; the Court of Appeals called his nine-and-a-half-year sentence “grossly disproportionate.” She unapologetically prosecutes marijuana possession.

Freeman knew from childhood that she wanted to be a lawyer. As a girl, she spent afternoons in her grandfather’s courtroom and days at work with her father, an assistant to Chief Justice Susie Marshall Sharp—the first female judge in North Carolina and the first woman elected as a state’s chief justice. She understood that the law helps people who’ve been wronged.

When she was eight, however, a drunk driver slammed into her car. Her friend’s mother, who was driving, spent months in the hospital. The accident imprinted on Freeman that justice also means punishing the wrongdoer.

“They’ve done bad things, right?” Freeman said.

But Freeman has built her brand beyond law and order. She’s established clinics to help people expunge their criminal records. She initiated a process to potentially restore thousands of driver’s licenses suspended over court debts. She led a committee that recently recommended new pretrial release guidelines. Her office boasts more pretrial diversion programs than any other in the state.

An Assembly Sidebar: Bail Reform and the Criminalization of Poverty

An Assembly Sidebar: A Closer Look at Freeman’s Attempts at Reforms

Reform advocates say Freeman’s approach to justice—with its strict assessments of who deserves a second chance—prevents those initiatives from helping as many people as they could.

With Democrats in control of Wake County—Republicans haven’t won a contested countywide race since 2014—reformers think they can do better. An insurgency won’t be easy, however.

A street view of downtown Raleigh. // Photos by Cornell Watson

“Wake County is not the liberal hotbed that Durham and Chapel Hill are,” said retired Raleigh News & Observer reporter Rob Christensen, a historian of North Carolina politics. “It votes Democratic, but it’s a much larger county, and it has a smaller African American community.” (African Americans comprise 37 percent of Durham County’s population, compared with 22 percent of Wake County’s.)

Few politicians have stronger ties to the state’s Democratic establishment than Freeman, whose father became a top adviser to Governors Jim Hunt and Mike Easley and, briefly, a North Carolina Supreme Court justice. Freeman chaired the Wake County Democratic Party from 2003 to 2005, and her campaign team includes the former director of the state party.

Freeman, 50, spent a little more than a year as an assistant district attorney before taking positions at the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission and Department of Justice. She then won four straight county elections—two for district attorney, two before that for clerk of superior court. After eschewing fundraising during the first half of 2021, Freeman quickly banked almost $80,000 once she took the primary seriously; her donor list is a who’s-who of state and county power players.

Meanwhile, her opponent, Damon Chetson, is largely unknown outside of criminal defense circles. His experience in Democratic politics is limited to canvassing for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 primary. Until a few years ago, he wasn’t a Democrat at all.

An Assembly Sidebar: The Evolution of Damon Chetson

In 2010, when Freeman ran for reelection as clerk of court, Chetson emailed his friends to endorse her. “While I have not been practicing a long time in Wake County, my interactions with the clerk’s office have been almost uniformly positive,” he wrote. “Even though I am a registered Republican and a former vice president of the Barry Goldwater Institute, I do not believe we should sacrifice professionalism in a job like this for ideological reasons.”

Twelve years later, the former vice president of a conservative Arizona think tank argues that Freeman has failed to bring progressive change.

No less important, Chetson also accuses Freeman of failing to effectively manage her office and implement good policies, which he said prevents Wake County from having “a fair and equitable court system.”

Ossiwald Moore, a Garner 16-year-old arrested for murder in March 2019 and jailed on a $5 million bond, finally went on trial in December 2021. After Moore spent two years and nine months behind bars, a Wake County jury acquitted him within three hours.

Assistant public defender Molly O’Neil said Moore’s case was riddled with errors and should have been dismissed long before it saw a courtroom.

“But nobody [at the district attorney’s office] wanted to be the one actually answering for all these problems,” O’Neil said. “That’s the culture. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything, and as a result, we waste time and resources trying to send kids to prison on weak or nonexistent evidence.”

In 2021, Wake County prosecutors lost five of 12 murder trials, according to a list provided by the district attorney’s office. Two of their seven wins ended with manslaughter convictions. Prosecutors scored convictions in 69 percent of the 55 major felony cases, including 26 murders, they tried from 2019 to 2021. Of the six capital cases Freeman has taken to a jury, just one resulted in a death sentence. (North Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.)

O’Neil said that considering that prosecutors decide which cases to try, “that is failing a test you have all the answers to.”

Freeman pointed out that for decades, experts have warned against using verdicts to measure success. (The Assembly found no national database tracking local conviction rates.) Nonetheless, her opponent, Chetson, argued those numbers indicate a “culture of fear in that office,” he wrote in a text message. “Why bother trying to explain to your boss why the case ought to be pled out? You should just try it, and then if you lose, blame the jury.”

A former assistant district attorney who spoke with The Assembly on the condition of anonymity disputes Chetson’s claim about the office culture. Freeman has “trust in the people she hires,” the former prosecutor said.

Still, some defense lawyers say their frustration with Freeman has boiled over.

“The relationship between the defense bar and the DA is so tense because you are fighting about everything,” said Jackie Willingham, a former assistant public defender who went into private practice last year. “It is the worst it has ever been in the 10 years I’ve been doing this.”

One problem, the attorneys say, is that Freeman doesn’t allow her prosecutors to exercise their own judgment. Another is the office’s written policies: their presence, specificity, and scope.

Damon Chetson stands in front of the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh. // Photos by Cornell Watson

In particular, Chetson has criticized Freeman for an unusually short policy governing evidence prosecutors must disclose to defendants that helps their case or undermines the prosecution’s witnesses, referred to as “Brady/Giglio material.”

Just 332 words long, Freeman’s policy instructs law enforcement agencies to determine whether they have information that might discredit their own officers. More detailed policies from the Mecklenburg County and Durham County district attorney’s offices—14 and 20 pages long, respectively—place disclosure decisions in the hands of internal committees.

Chetson said the office’s lack of guidance contributed to an April 2021 mistrial after a prosecutor failed to turn over key evidence until five days into a murder trial. More broadly, defense lawyers say they have no way of knowing what prosecutors don’t turn over. And under Freeman’s policy, prosecutors have no way of knowing what the police don’t disclose.

“Obviously, at some level, I have to trust [the police],” Freeman said. “Fortunately, we don’t have reason to believe at this point that it’s not being honored. But I think it’s something that, if we ever did, we might make a different policy.”

On another issue, the problem wasn’t a vague policy, but the lack of a policy altogether. Until November, the district attorney’s office didn’t prohibit supervisors from pursuing sexual relationships with their subordinates.

Freeman said she enacted a fraternization policy following a “personnel situation” this fall. She declined to discuss what happened. But according to more than a half-dozen courthouse sources, Freeman learned that her first assistant district attorney, Patrick Latour—effectively, her second-in-command—had been romantically involved with a prosecutor he oversaw.

Latour did not respond to The Assembly’s requests for comment.

“I think we are in a different era today than we were even 10 years ago where, you know, what may be a consensual relationship between two unmarried adults,” Freeman told The Assembly. “Now, where there may be a supervisor, whether there is any allegation of coercion, that is something I feel strongly enough about that it should not happen that I’ve now specifically put in place a policy in my office.”

The Assembly also asked about a second situation that did not involve Latour. Freeman said she took no action after a prosecutor told her that she’d been sexually assaulted by another employee. Freeman said her recollection was the alleged assault happened prior to her becoming district attorney.

“I did not take that report to be a report, you know, that they wanted a criminal investigation, or they wanted action by me. It was more of a disclosure situation,” said Freeman. In a later interview, she added, “If I believed that she was coming to me wanting me to investigate it or take some action about it, obviously, I believe I would have done that. I did not feel like that was the spirit in which that was divulged.”

Freeman said that last fall’s “personnel situation” led her to restructure the office, which included eliminating Latour’s first assistant position, according to a Nov. 1 email obtained by The Assembly. (Latour remains an assistant district attorney.)

Freeman told The Assembly she’d been thinking about the reorganization for a while. During exit interviews, Freeman said departing prosecutors told her they didn’t feel like they were part of a team.

There have been a lot of exit interviews lately. Nearly a third of Freeman’s 82 employees, including 14 of 43 prosecutors, quit in 2021—ironically, a turnover rate nearly identical to the one Freeman criticized incumbent Janet Pueschel for when she first ran for clerk of court in 2006. Fifteen more prosecutors left in the previous two years, personnel records show.

Staffing problems aren’t new to district attorney’s offices or unique to Wake County. In 2021, for example, about 20 percent of Mecklenburg County prosecutors quit, a spokesperson told The Assembly. And while the pandemic made things worse, it’s not the only factor at play. Freeman’s office processes nearly as many cases a year as its counterpart in Mecklenburg County, but it only has about half as many prosecutors.

Research shows that giving prosecutors heavy caseloads leads to backlogs, mistakes, and bias. It also causes burnout. Compounding matters, Wake prosecutors start at $55,000, a meager salary considering hefty law school loans. And following years of protests against systemic racism, young lawyers no longer believe prosecutors are “on the right side of history,” Freeman said.

That’s a difficult sales pitch: Be overworked, underpaid, and often maligned. It’s proven an especially hard case to make to lawyers of color.

In May, Chetson penned a letter to INDY Week, the Triangle’s alternative newspaper, criticizing Freeman for not having a “single African American (or Latinx) felony prosecutor on staff.”

Freeman responded that she had a Hispanic felony prosecutor, and two Black felony prosecutors had recently left. She said her remaining Black prosecutors were inexperienced, so they handled misdemeanors.

The real problem, Freeman said, is that African Americans comprise only 9% of North Carolina lawyers. Of the few willing to join the district attorney’s office, many get better-paying offers long before they move up to felonies.

Diversity isn’t as easy as Chetson makes it out to be, Freeman said.

Freeman ranks among North Carolina’s most influential district attorneys, with jurisdiction over both its capital and largest county. But her office doesn’t have a website, social media accounts, or a public information officer. Public records requests are handled by Freeman herself. Until recently, even her campaign website was just one page.

Self-promotion is “not where her self-worth comes from,” said Kimberly Overton Spahos, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. (Freeman serves on the conference’s executive committee.)

That hasn’t discouraged chatter about higher office. Freeman is a rumored candidate for attorney general in 2024, when Josh Stein is expected to run for governor. Though Freeman said she doesn’t intend to run, she added, “I’m never going to say never.”

That implies that someone will ask—and maybe someone will. A judge persuaded Freeman to run for clerk of court in 2006, she said. Establishment heavyweights encouraged her to run for district attorney in 2014. She checks the right boxes for statewide office.

“There is a certain model for how Democrats get elected in North Carolina,” Christensen said. “Generally, the Democrats do best when they put up somebody who is kind of center-left, as opposed to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.”

Whatever Freeman’s plans, critics see political calculations in her actions.

Dawn Blagrove sits in the lobby of City Club in downtown Raleigh. // Photos by Cornell Watson

“I think you have to look at her performance through the lens of what is politically expedient,” said Dawn Blagrove of Emancipate NC. “She is incredibly risk-averse. She tries really hard to give this impression of walking the middle of the road.”

Some detractors speculate that Freeman declined to prosecute House Speaker Tim Moore, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, and former congressional candidate Mark Harris—who faced accusations of corruption, campaign finance violations, and election fraud, respectively—to avoid provoking Republicans.

Blagrove believes Freeman is deferential to police to avoid angering law enforcement. She pointed out that Freeman hasn’t prosecuted any officers in the 21 fatal police shootings that occurred in Wake County since she took office—a Jan. 11 death is still under investigation—or charged former Raleigh detective Omar Abdullah a year-and-a-half after dismissing the cases against the men he arrested.

Freeman said objectivity, not politics, guides her approach to high-profile cases.

But she said she understands the skepticism that surrounds investigations into law enforcement. “A lot of times, I’m in a position of having information that I cannot disclose publicly. And you’re in an arena where people want answers now, and they can’t understand why you’re making certain decisions. I mean, I get frustrated sometimes,” Freeman said.

With Abdullah, she continued, her job is to determine whether his actions were criminal. “Which is different than saying, ‘Is it bad policing or not? Or should the person be fired, or is there civil liability or not?’ People mistake us not prosecuting as us saying it was fine.”

In September, the city of Raleigh settled a civil suit with 15 plaintiffs for $2 million. Weeks later, the Raleigh Police Department fired Abdullah.

A skyline view of downtown Raleigh. // Photos by Cornell Watson

Freeman says critics want her to apply a double standard.

“The same people who are telling us not to rush to judgment, not to overcharge people, are the same people who want us to rush to judgment. They want us to charge law enforcement officers quickly,” she said.

Freeman pointed to four cases where she said she held law enforcement accountable for misconduct. In one, a grand jury refused an indictment; in another, two officers took no-jail plea deals in the canine assault and beating of an unarmed Black man.

In January, Freeman was scheduled to try the first case in a Granville County scandal prompted by a former sheriff allegedly encouraging the murder of a former deputy, which later mushroomed to include three deputies and dozens of charges. But that trial was delayed for weeks after former deputy Chad Coffey accused Freeman of a conflict of interest.

Coffey failed to get Freeman removed from the case, but his motion revealed a rarely seen side of the reserved district attorney. After being texted screenshots of Coffey’s wife criticizing prosecutors on Facebook, Freeman fumed. “Sooner or later he’s going to realize I’m not fucking around,” she texted back.

On Feb. 10, a jury convicted Coffey of 12 counts of obstructing justice.

In Wake County’s jail, African American inmates typically outnumber white inmates two to one. Eight of the 10 defendants in Freeman’s death penalty cases were Black men. And more than 80 percent of those the district attorney’s office has prosecuted as habitual felons and given enhanced sentences are Black, according to data compiled for The Assembly by Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke University.

Freeman doesn’t downplay these disparities. But she doesn’t think they make the justice system racist, either.

It’s a longstanding belief for Freeman.

As an analyst for the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission in 2002, Freeman’s team found “no differences in the way whites and non-whites were processed in the courts.” At the time, African Americans comprised 22 percent of the state’s population but 65 percent of its convicted felons. The report argued that disparities correlate with race, but racial discrimination didn’t cause them.

A study she led last year similarly claimed that while Black people are overrepresented in the system, it’s not the justice system’s fault.

Critics say that mindset creates blind spots.

In 2019, defense attorney Amily McCool emailed the district attorney’s office a complaint about pretextual traffic stops targeting people of color in a Raleigh nightclub district, then issuing citations for “low-level misdemeanors.”

McCool wrote that 81 percent of one officer’s charges following such stops were against people of color; the same went for 74 percent of another officer’s charges. Freeman responded that the Raleigh police thought the data “did not substantiate a pattern of profiling.”

Freeman agrees that bias can exist. She pointed out that shortly before the pandemic, she hired (with her own money) a community activist to train her staff on implicit bias, and she has advocated similar training statewide. But she said focusing on the justice system misses the bigger picture.

“For me, there is a large, large funnel,” Freeman said. “There are disparities in a lot of our systems, and the justice system becomes the bottom of the funnel.

Lorrin Freeman sits in a courtroom at the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh. // Photos by Cornell Watson

“Until we get serious about addressing the disparities or the inequities in health, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, economic opportunity, and educational opportunity, you’re going to continue to have this disparate representation in the justice system, and it’s not something the justice system can fix.”

It’s a call for radical change—of everything but the criminal justice system.

In Lorrin Freeman’s mind, the law is black and white: Possessing marijuana is against the law, so she prosecutes it; the death penalty is an option, so she seeks it. What she believes takes a backseat to the institution’s demands.

This rigid interpretation of her duty has led her down questionable paths.

In 2018, Freeman opposed James Blackmon’s release from prison after the North Carolina Innocence Commission determined that two Raleigh detectives coerced a false murder confession from him 35 years earlier. Freeman admits she wouldn’t have prosecuted Blackmon—a Black man who suffered from mental illness—without physical evidence linking him to the crime (there was none).

But she told the three-judge panel deciding Blackmon’s fate that decades ago, courts ruled his confession admissible, so absent DNA that proves his innocence, he should remain behind bars.

“I need to be careful about substituting my own opinions and/or decisions for those of others who stood in the place to do that at the time,” Freeman explained. “The temptation is there to judge cases from 40 years ago by today’s standards. But that is a really dangerous slope. It’s not to say that it’s not proper to do that sometimes—and we do that sometimes—but it’s just something to be very careful about.”

Blackmon was freed in 2018 and filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Raleigh. He died in January 2022 at age 69.

Some critics assume Freeman shrouds unpopular decisions in objectivity as a political tactic—and perhaps she does. But there’s a simpler way to understand her.

Freeman believes that “having a criminal justice system that the public has confidence in really is important to our ability to live in a community together.”

But the public won’t trust a system that fails to punish lawbreakers or make them feel safe. And they won’t trust a system that changes too much, too fast.

“There is the constant kind of tension,” Freeman said. “How do we shift the system in the direction of making sure that it’s not disproportionately impacting communities of color? How do we make sure it’s fair? Some [prosecutors] have taken very strong positions in terms of things they’re willing to prosecute and things they’re not. And in some parts of the country, you’re beginning to see a little bit of a pushback.

“I mean, people want the system to move. I understand that, especially if you’re somebody who feels like the system works against you. But in terms of redefining the criminal justice system, it really has to—to some extent—be an incremental process, because you have this tension. Everybody needs to be in a position where they can feel safe and feel like the law can be upheld.”

Freeman sees herself as occupying the careful middle ground between fairness and perceptions of safety, protecting the institution while nudging it in the right direction.

In May, Wake County Democrats will decide how well she’s handled that balancing act.

Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at jeffrey@theassemblync.com.

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Update: After this article was published, The Assembly added attribution to the sentence detailing the timeline of an alleged assault of an employee of the District Attorney’s office.