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Mike Freeman reflects on 24 years as Hennepin County Attorney

Freeman was first elected in 1990 and served over two spans, interrupted by a run for governor.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the weeks wane at the end of the long career of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, he has been doing a lot of reflecting.

"You know, it's a lot of mixed feelings. It's kind of bittersweet. It's time to go. I know that," Freeman said. "I'm pleased with a lot of stuff we've done, and there are some things I wish I had a little bit more time to do."

Freeman was born to hold public office. He is the son of former Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, who nominated John F. Kennedy for president at the 1960 Democratic National Convention and then served as Kennedy's Secretary of Agriculture.

The elder Freeman was a mentor and inspiration to the sports-loving kid who grew up to play college football.

Freeman first served in Minnesota's legislature, and then in 1990, was elected Hennepin County Attorney. He felt "a sense of duty" that attracted him to the office, which he attributes to his Norwegian-Lutheran background.

But Freeman's political ambitions did not end there. In 1998, Freeman left the role as top prosecutor in Minnesota's largest county to mount a serious campaign for governor and follow in his father's footsteps. Freeman received the DFL endorsement but did not win in the Democratic primary.

"Oh, I was crestfallen. It was very difficult," Freeman said. "All the sudden, not only did I lose an election, but I’m out of a job."

After working in private practice, Freeman's old office opened up once again in 2006 when Amy Klobuchar ran for U.S. Senate. Freeman was once again elected, but this time, he was determined to carve out his legacy as the Hennepin County Attorney.

"Truth and reaching out for justice was always very important for me, and I was really glad to come back and do that," Freeman said.

When Freeman first took office, there were only three or four prosecutors of color within, he said. Today, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office consists of 30% lawyers of color.

"In the last 10 years, 17 members of the Hennepin County Attorney's office have been named judges, and seven have been judges of color," Freeman said. "I think I leave a legacy of a very well-trained and professional office committed to justice."

Despite his work over the years diversifying the office and working with communities on crime-prevention initiatives, it was the social justice movement that gave Freeman the most scrutiny — primarily involving his decisions not to file charges against police officers involved in deadly shootings of Black men.

"Jamar Clark is the classic example. The hardest case I’ve had," Freeman said.

In March 2016, Freeman held a detailed news conference including video and photographs to explain how Clark's DNA was found on the gun of a Minneapolis police officer who said Clark was grabbing it.

"The evidence simply wasn’t there that the cops acted in a criminal manner," Freeman said.

But Freeman's presentation did not convince activists who badly wanted the county attorney to file charges. And that amplified their targeting of him with routine protests.

"I decided that the county attorney ought to make that decision and not a grand jury because we are transparent and we are accountable," Freeman said. "And my accountability was people in the streets outside my house yelling at me."

Freeman believes he was treated unfairly in "the crush of events," and the scrutiny did not ease even after his office earned the first homicide conviction in state history for a police officer in a use of force case after Mohamed Noor killed Justine Ruszczyk. He admits the ongoing reception he received from social justice activists surprised him.

"I knew there were strong feelings. I thought when the explanation that we gave — which was extensive — questions I answered, the fact we put a detailed report up on our website, it's like it didn’t matter," Freeman said. "People were not as interested in what the real facts were. They were interested in what their perceptions were."

When it comes to cases that his office handles, Freeman is particularly proud of the successful convictions his prosecutors obtained over the course of the last year with some extremely complicated cases. The cold case murder conviction of Jerry Westrom rested on DNA evidence, which was linked to him through the collection of a napkin at a hockey game. The Highway 169 shooting of Jay Boughton by Jamal Smith was cracked after tracing surveillance cameras and cell phone data, and making that information easy for a jury to digest. And the horrific murder of real estate agent Monique Baugh ended with four defendants convicted, and Baugh's mother's strength through the proceedings inspired prosecutors throughout the office.

When Freeman references wishing he had more time before leaving office, he's talking about the unsolved murders of Aniya Allen, Ladavionne Garrett Jr., and Trinity Ottoson-Smith.

"I’m a father of five. My kids are doggone important to me. And to lose these kids and never have any justice, we’ve worked really hard on those cases," Freeman said.

When Freeman leaves office in January, he will be replaced by former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty. Freeman supported her opponent Martha Holton Dimick in the election, which Moriarty won handily.

Freeman compares the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, which handles 9,000 adult felonies and 4,000 juvenile cases each year, to a giant battleship whose course cannot be easily changed, even though he's sure Moriarty will implement policy changes.

"People grow into the offices that they hold. I expect no less of Mary. I think people expected no less of me," he said. "I have every reason, every faith that this office will continue to seek justice."

Freeman said he will take until Labor Day 2023 to start thinking about what comes next for him, although he believes he's done practicing law.

In the meantime, he said he's using his final days to try to improve the reputation of the office with those who believe it has been tarnished.

"This is a good office with good people committed to justice, and I want to make sure that message gets out," Freeman said.

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