Criminal Defense: David Freeman

After David Freedman finished law school, he did what he’d been dreaming of since age 12. He hung a shingle on an office in Winston-Salem as a criminal-defense lawyer. The first month, business was lean, so he spent more time at the YMCA than at the office. “I’d go to the office and check the answering service, and if there were no calls, I’d go back to the Y and play more basketball.” Now a partner at White and Crumpler in Winston-Salem, his phone rings plenty.

His first case was a misdemeanor larceny charge — a fellow who had stolen a toothbrush. He has since tried more than 60 murder cases. But white-collar crime accounts for about 35% of his practice, and increasingly he represents lawyers accused of wrongdoing before the State Bar.

“David is becoming the lawyer’s lawyer,” says William B. Reingold, chief District Court judge in Forsyth County, who has served on the bench more than 20 years. “When other lawyers or judges have a problem, he’s one of the first people they look to for legal advice and counsel.”

Freedman’s boyhood was rocked by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, his idol. As a Jew and descendant of Russian immigrants, he also was molded by stories of the Holocaust. “I respect the police but fear the police state, and I feel that it’s criminal-defense lawyers who prevent that from happening.” The son of a textile-factory manager, Freedman moved all over the Carolinas but spent his high-school years in Asheville. He worked on the loading docks at his dad’s factory. “That taught me a lot of valuable lessons, including how important it is to get an education.” Once he got his law degree, he considered working for a criminal-defense firm in Atlanta but decided to go out on his own. He picked Winston-Salem because it was “small enough to get my name around but large enough to have plenty going on.” He joined White and Crumpler in 1986.

His name got around a lot in the early ’90s, when he represented Larry Womble, a black Winston-Salem alderman charged with extortion. Womble, now a five-term state representative from Forsyth County, was the only one of four defendants — all black elected officials — acquitted. The case even attracted Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to Winston-Salem to help raise funds for the defendants.

Freedman got involved in another high-profile case in 1996, after two local students were killed and three others seriously injured in a drunken-driving accident. He defended the driver, who had a previous drunken-driving conviction. In such instances, defendants typically are charged with second-degree murder, but the prosecution filed first-degree charges and sought the death penalty — the first time in the country a drunken driver had been tried for first-degree murder. Freedman’s client was convicted but got a life sentence. On appeal, Freedman argued that the state should not have been permitted to file capital charges in the case. The state Supreme Court agreed, and the sentence was reduced to 15 years. “If the state had prevailed, it would have allowed prosecutors to have unlimited discretion.” In his eyes, it was a blow against the threat of a police state.

No matter how serious the case, he tries not to take the burdens of work home. Freedman says he’s “the Ward Cleaver of the early 2000s,” active in his temple and spending most of his spare time coaching his kids’ soccer and basketball teams.

— Kathy Brown