Charles E. Freeman, 1st African American to serve on Illinois Supreme Court, dies at 86

The Supreme Court of Illinois announced Monday that Justice Charles E. Freeman has died at the age of 86.

Justice Freeman had a long and distinguish career as the first African American to serve on the Court and as Chief Justice.

Freeman was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 12, 1933, and is descended from slaves freed by the Quakers before the American Civil War, according to a press release by the Supreme Court of Illinois. He earned his Bachelors of Arts from Virginia Union University in 1954 and earned his Juris Doctor from the John Marshall Law School in 1962.

Freeman served as an Illinois assistant attorney general, Cook County assistant state's attorney, and assistant attorney for the County Board of Election Commissioners in private practice from 1962 to 1979.

He was appointed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner as an arbitrator with the Illinois Industrial Commission, where he worked for nine years. Freeman then moved on to serve on the Illinois Commerce Commission under Gov. Dan Walker from 1973 to 1976.

Freeman went on to win the 1976 Cook County Circuit Court election and served for 10 years. During that tenure he was the first African American to swear in a Chicago mayor. After administering the oath of office to Harold Washington in 1983, the two went on to share an office in Chicago for several years.

He was elected to the First District Appellate Court in 1986, where Freeman served as Presiding Judge of the Third Division and as a member of the First District Executive Committee at the same time. He then went on to defeat Republican Robert Chapman Buckley 62% to 38% in 1990 in a First Judicial District election to fill the Illinois Supreme Court vacancy of Seymour Simon.

One of Freeman's most publicized cases was the 1994 decision involving DuPage County defendant Rolando Cruz, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime. In 1900 and 1992, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Cruz's conviction and death sentence, but heard the case again in 1994 after a sheriff's lieutenant admitted he had lied under oath about Cruz's statements regarding the murder.

In delivering the People v. Cruz opinion reversing his conviction, Justice Freeman considered the "impact our decision will have upon Jeanine Nicarico's surviving family and friends." Yet, he reasoned, "we are duty bound to play a larger role in preserving that very basic guarantee of our democratic society, that every person, however culpable, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. We cannot deviate from the obligation of that role."

Another man eventually admitted to the murder, and in 2002, Cruz received a pardon from Governor George Ryan.

In 1997, the Supreme Court justices chose Freeman to serve as Chief Justice, succeeding Justice James Heiple and becoming the first African American to lead a branch of Illinois government.

"I'm an African American who now has become chief judge; I'm not an African American chief justice. I have no different perception on what course I would take because of my heritage," Freeman said when he was asked about the significance of being the first African American Chief Justice. Freeman won retention to the Court in 2000 and 2010, both with nearly 80% of the vote.

Freeman is survived by his son, Kevin (wife Cami) Freeman, grandchildren Skye Marie Freeman and Miles Charles Freeman, as well as his brother James Freeman.

A memorial service hosted in Chicago by the Illinois Supreme Court will be announced at a later date.
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