Say what you want about Freda (Bowman) Black, she was her own person. She was loved as a good Southern woman and skillful attorney, despised by the LGBTQ community, mocked for her prosecutorial performance in The Staircase, and she was forever linked to the Michael Peterson case.
After high school, Freda graduated with a B. A. From Wake Forest University in 1982 followed by obtaining her law degree from Campbell University of Law in 1985.
Her legal career began as a public defender in Robeson County, North Carolina and then Durham County, North Carolina as an assistant District Attorney in the criminal division. Freda then went into private law practice as a criminal defense attorney toward the end of her career.
First and foremost, she wanted to be defined as a prosecutor and a woman second, as noted by former journalist and documentary producer, Denis Poncet, who spent many hours in her company. She bristled when he offered a feminine compliment. It must have been hell to be a female among the good ol’ boy Southern attorney’s circle. And worse yet, a female prosecutor. It was swim with the sharks or don’t survive.
From 1991 to 2005, she served as a Durham County assistant prosecutor. During these 14 years, she was involved in the prosecution of several homicides and other serious felonies including, Gregory Bagley, Brett Potter, Donald Scanlon, Isaac Strond, Syreeta Edwards, Norma Brown, Eric Crutchfield, Michael Peterson, Al Atwater, Darryl Crawford, Todd Boggess, Everett Russell.
Black was either dismissed or resigned in May of 2005 by District Attorney Mike Nifong and subsequently ran against him in a Democratic primary the following year. To her credit, something rotten was going on in the DA’s office, in that she was the third district attorney to leave within a week. He then defeated her in the May 2006 Democratic primary.
Nifong beat her in the race, but, he was later disbarred for more than two dozen violations of the North Carolina State Bar rules of conduct during his mishandling of the Duke University Lacrosse case and filed for bankruptcy.
In 2008, she ran a second time for the position of head District Attorney of Durham, NC. She gave interviews detailing her position on various issues including her belief that the death penalty should be applied in only the most extreme cases and that plea bargaining is necessary due to the high volume of cases. However she acknowledged that serious cases may not be plea bargained due to victim’s objections. At the time, she agreed that adult prosecutions of young offenders should be raised from 16 to 18 years, as juveniles at 16, do not fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.
Freda seemingly was on top of her game as she articulated her criminal priorities which included identifying the top 10% violent criminals with vigorous prosecution, reorganize Durham law enforcement agencies to better combat gang violence, and redirect resources in the prosecutors office to focus on the most serious violent offenders.
It was a good plan, but she was not victorious in her efforts. Freda ran two unsuccessful campaigns for Durham County district attorney, in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, she also ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Durham County District Court bench.
At the time of the Michael Peterson trial, Freda hitched her wagon to the credibility of Assistant Medical Examiner who said Kathleen was killed by homicide. She weighed in about the infamous Larry Pollard owl theory which may or may not be viable in March 2016.
In 2018, when we discover from the final episodes of The Staircase that defense attorney David Rudolph learned that Freda knew the Chief Medical Examiner told Assistant ME Deborah Radisch to say it was a homicide versus blunt force trauma.
The following news video was made March 9, 2016 when Freda had moved on to another County and was a defense attorney- https://www.wral.com/news/local/video/3407939/
Freda was struggling with personal issues in January 2015. She was arrested for several DUI charges and was working in a dry cleaning business. But, what cased this downward spiral?
Up until Freda’s death in July, 2018, BBC correspondent, Tom Gasparoli, who had done a podcast with her, checked in several times in her later years.
Life was rough. Life had changed, and not for the better.
Family Members- The Bowmans –
Freda Black’s family was filled with high achievers. There were no less than five MDs or Phds in her family.
Her mother, Dr. Betty Lynch Bowman, who died at age 85, had four children and 11 grandchildren. She earned a Master’s Degree in 1957, and and a Doctorate in Education in 1971. She was a principal in elementary schools in Burlington, NC as well as a Sunday school and Bible Studies teacher for 60 years. Betty was also Woman of the Year for the Burlington Civitan Club and the American Business Women’s Association.
Freda’s father, J. Fred Bowman survives Freda and continues to lives in Burlington, NC. However, it was learned that there was a Silver Alert for this man, also issued by the CUE Center for Missing Persons [http://www.ncmissingpersons.org] in February 2018, which was then cancelled. This might suggest that Freda’s father may have cognitive impairments which includes the possibility of wandering and getting lost.
Tragically, her brother, Zebulon Dr. (Zeb) Bowman of Houston, Texas died of diabetes on February 14, 2016.
It should be noted that the larger the family, the less likely that every member has lived a pristine life. In that spirit, it is sad to report that another sibling, Dr. Tom Bowman of N. Wilkesboro, NC did not stay on the straight and narrow path. In October 2008, he attempted a political career, “Tom Bowman is a former county commissioner and physician who resigned from the board of commissioners in 2001 as part of a felony-plea arrangement related to repackaging prescription drug samples for sale. He is running as an independent to regain a seat on the board.”
Bowman had a large practice, seeing about 8,000 patients. He said he delivered babies, made house calls, cared for the elderly and generally took on too much work.
“I have been more than punished on whatever I did,” he said. “I have apologized to everybody I can…. But on the other hand, I can do some good now.” Reportedly, he attempted to regain his medical license, but it was denied. After he resigned his medical license, Bowman got a degree in accounting at Wilkes Community College. He worked as the office manager of his wife’s medical practice.
But what about Freda?
In polite society, particularly in the Bible Belt, some subjects are not publicly discussed such as gay, lesbian, bi-sexuality, alcohol, drug addiction, suicide, homelessness, other sexual proclivities and on and on. But, in 2018, no one virtually has secrets kept from the public. The fact is, we all have something we aren’t particularly proud of. So with that, I list some of Freda’s potential trials and tribulations.
The never ending pressure of the Michael Peterson initial trial and the magnifying glass effect of The Staircase film, along the international exposure, helped to create the beginnings of a perfect storm for Freda, in my opinion.
Freda battled alcoholism. We know not when it began or what forces contributed to the ruination of her career. I would say, that typically, alcoholism has a genetic base and there was likely a predisposition with such a large family. Her record of arrests, and revocation were reported by a Herald Sun reporter on July 30, 2018-
- Freda faced driving while impaired charges in Durham and Orange counties including a 2012 arrest warrant, in which she measured 0.18 on a blood alcohol test;
- In 2013, she pleaded guilty to the charge and surrendered her license.
- In 2015 she pleaded guilty to a second DWI;
- In 2016 she was charged with driving while her license was revoked for impairment.
Such a list serves no real purpose but to tarnish the good that Freda did.
“The Sandwich Generation” A person responsible for bringing up their own children and for the care of their aging parents.
Freda’s Father– James Fred Bowman is listed as still living in Alamance County, Burlington, NC. The family home looked a neat 5 bedroom ranch house. If Mr. Bowman has medical issues, perhaps as the single adult in the area, she may have been his conservator prior to her death. I know first hand, it is very trying , time consuming and expensive to ensure an elderly person’s safety and medical needs in advanced age.
Freda had two college age daughters and told Tom Gasparoli that she was going through a lot; she was troubled about elder care issues her father’s health, the fact that she had two college aged daughters and a poor paying job.
Currently an assistant Public Defender job in Durham pays $53,157 per year; An Assistant DA makes 58,012 to-$61,946 per year; A dry cleaning job pays approximately $12.00 /hr or $22,000 per year. If Freda wanted to contribute to her daughter’s college education, it appears she would not have been able to do so.
Music, Music, Music– In the shadow of Michael Peterson, few if any beyond her local community knew that Freda was a skilled organist, pianist, soloist and choir member. She actually served as the pianist for 8 years at the church in which she was a member- the Beverly Hills United Church of Christ.
Postscript-– An ironic twist on this narrative, is that the United Church of Christ, as a group, has been seen as one of the most liberal and welcoming organizations since 2005!
“Founded in 1957 with the joining of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC) is recognized as one of the most welcoming and affirming Christian denominations, celebrating same-sex marriages since 2005 and ordaining LGBTQ pastors since 1972. Numbering more than 5,000 churches and close to a million members, the UCC core values include an “Extravagant Welcome,” and the affirmation, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”
This is surely a contrast to Freda’s upbringing and her famous “hell, damnation and pure filth” closing argument in Michael Peterson’s trial.
Freda was her own person and deserves to be remembered more for her accomplishments as an attorney and mother, rather than her human frailties which made her the ultimate victim in the public eye! RIP, Freda!
“Freda was an incredible person in so many ways,” said Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin, who served as Durham district attorney from 1994 to 2005. Hardin said Black was a true prosecutor. When she left the DA’s office, she was no longer able to do that,” “I honestly believe that was a significant contributor to some of the problems that she had.”
Freda’s Obituary- https://www.richandthompson.com/tributes/Freda-Black
References and Photo Credits- https://indyweek.com/news/elections/freda-black/
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