Justice Charles E. Freeman, the first African American to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and its first black chief justice died Monday, the Supreme Court of Illinois announced. Justice Freeman was 86 years old.
In 1990 an election was held in the First Judicial District to fill a vacancy left by Seymour Simon. Freeman, presiding judge of the Third Division and a member of First District Executive Committee defeated Republican Robert Chapman Buckley capturing 62 percent of the vote to Buckley’s 38 percent.
Seven years later, Supreme Court justices chose Freemen as Chief Justice, succeeding James Heiple to become the first African American to lead a branch of the Illinois government.
When asked about his appointment as to Chief Justice, Freeman said, “I’m an African Amercan who has now 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.” He won retention to the Court in 2000 and 2010, both times with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
During his tenure as Chief Justice, Freeman oversaw improved efficiency of the Family Violence Prevention Program; a judicial web page; and the reorganization of the rotation of assignments of appellate judges in the First Judicial District.
Chief Justice Freeman also was praised for upholding defendants’ rights and advocating prosecutorial reforms.
One of his most-publicized rulings occurred when he was a member of the Supreme Court but not yet chief justice. The case involved Rolando Cruz, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Jeanine Nicarico, who was 10 years old.
Although no physical evidence linked Cruz to the crime, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence in 1990 and 1992. The Court agreed to hear the case again in 1994. During the hearing, a sheriff’s lieutenant admitted he lied under oath regarding Cruz’s statements concerning the murder.
Justice Freeman wrote the opinion in the case titled People vs Cruz overturning Cruz’s conviction. Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned Cruz after another man confessed to the murder.
Freeman was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 12, 1933. He was a descendent of slaves freed by Quakers before the Civil War. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University, a historically black university. He earned his law degree from John Marshall Law School in 1962.
From 1962 to 1976, he had a private law practice with Harold Washington, who would later become Chicago’s first black mayor. In 1983, he administered the oath of office to Mayor Washington.
In 1976, he won an election to the Cook County Circuit Court where he served for 10 years. Voters elected him to the First District Appellate Court in 1986.
He retired from the Illinois Supreme Court on June 14, 2018.
He is survived by his son, Kevin, and grandchildren, Skye Marie Freeman and Miles Charles Freeman. He is also survived by a brother, James Freeman of Richmond, Virginia.
Memorial services are pending. For more information, call Chris Bonjean at the Illinois Supreme Court. His number is 312 793 2323.