CDPL is happy to announce that Steve Freedman is the winner of the 2021 J. Kirk Osborn Award for outstanding leadership in capital defense. This year, after a long year of separation, we are thrilled to once again gather in person to celebrate Steve and enjoy fellowship with our community. The ceremony honoring Steve will be Sept. 23, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Parizade in Durham. Register here.
Steve recently retired from the N.C. Office of the Capital Defender. All told, he spent 30 years as a public defender and worked several years as a staff attorney at CDPL. Steve has taken on the most difficult capital cases and persuaded juries to spare his clients’ lives. To cite just one example, in 2007, Steve represented Sam Cooper, who was accused in a Wake County crime spree that left five people dead. After a month-long trial in which Steve and his team presented compelling evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from horrendous childhood abuse, the jury voted for five life sentences instead of death. And Steve’s career is far from over. Despite his retirement, he recently agreed to take a Richmond County capital case, and he continues to assist on the case of a former client charged with killing four prison guards in Pasquotank County.
To understand why we chose Steve for this honor, read this nomination letter from fellow capital defender Robert Singagliese:
The epitome of leading by example
Over the course of his career, Steve has done more for poor people charged with capital murder than most any attorney in the state.
Steve has been an excellent advocate at the trial level for his entire career for poor people charged with serious felonies. He has been a public defender in Columbus, OH; Cumberland County, NC; Orange County, NC; and the Eastern District of NC in the federal system. He also spent a number of years at CDPL. Finally, he has spent about 15 years at the Office of the Capital Defender in Durham, where we worked together. He has tried eight capital trials, only one of which resulted in a death sentence. While not a very vocal member of the bar, I believe Steve is the epitome of leading by example.
In my four and a half years at OCD, I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Steve on three capital cases. (We also tried a non-capital case together that thrillingly resulted in an acquittal.) His care for his clients is obvious. In his earliest meetings with his clients, he lets them know that our job is going to be to learn everything we can about them, so that by the time a case has reached its conclusion we know more about our clients than they do. That is a fine explanation of mitigation work. That introduction also lets our clients know from the beginning that the case is not about the lawyers, and it’s not about the crime. Our work is about them.
The last of the three capital cases I mentioned ended just recently. In that case, our client cared less about his life than we did. (Indeed, he told the judge at his sentencing hearing that he was dissatisfied with his lawyers because we delayed the case and prevented him from getting the death penalty.) While capital trial work is always demanding and frustrating, it was even harder with a client who refused to cooperate with his defense team. Yet, Steve didn’t give up, and with some creative litigation and a lot of patience, we were able to maneuver the case into a posture that allowed it to be resolved without a capital trial.
As for teamwork, it’s obvious that Steve is the “first chair” in essentially any setting in which he finds himself. Yet he doesn’t make the other members of his team feel that way. He encourages participation from fellow attorneys, investigators, and experts. I’ve also seen him switch his own gears and focus based on the input of others, a sign that he’s not just being polite about a team approach. He sincerely appreciates that every member of the team has something to contribute.
I have also watched Steve work with several junior members of the capital defense community, including myself. I owe much of what I have learned since joining this office to Steve. I have no doubt that other lawyers have had a similar experience.
Finally, a short anecdote. Two years ago, Steve tried a non-capital murder case in Durham. The State never made a plea offer, and the facts were not good for Steve’s client. Steve’s defense brought forward evidence of legitimate mental health issues, including intellectual disability, Bipolar disorder, and intoxication. Before sitting down at the end of his closing argument, knowing that the State would have last argument, Steve choked up a bit and asked the members of the jury for someone to be his client’s advocate in the jury room. He asked for someone to stand up for D’Marlo, because Steve wasn’t going to be allowed to stand up again. It was clear how much Steve cared about his client. What more could a client ask for?
The J. Kirk Osborn Award
J. Kirk Osborn was one of the giants of the capital defense community. Kirk defended more than a dozen capital cases and never had a client sentenced to death. His advocacy and deep compassion for his clients saved many lives, and inspired other attorneys to follow in his footsteps. Each year, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation honors Kirk’s legacy by presenting the J. Kirk Osborn Award for lifelong zealous advocacy, compassion for indigent men and women facing the death penalty, and leadership among capital defense attorneys.