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The walls are barren, and the shelves that once stored law books and case files have been emptied.

Mike Freeman, retiring as Hennepin County attorney after 24 years, went through more than 100 boxes in his office before deciding on the 15 containers that he had friends load into pickups to take home for storage in his basement.

His tenure as county attorney started with an immediate high-profile challenge. Less than a month before he was sworn in for his first term in 1991, Freeman's office reviewed the case of 17-year-old Tycel Nelson, who was shot in the back and killed by a Minneapolis police officer. At the end of his sixth term last week, Freeman was in meetings to decide on charges in a fatal shooting at the Mall of America and dealing with an assault case involving police officers.

While he initiated reforms on juvenile justice, domestic violence, misdemeanor drug offenses and bail requests, Freeman received the most publicity over the death of George Floyd. Critics claimed his office wasn't transparent and undercharged the case. Millions of emails were sent to the office, and protesters marched in front of Freeman's home.

"It's time. ... I could still do the job and don't believe I have slacked off on the job one iota," said Freeman, 74. "But it's time for some new thoughts, and I need to move to a new part of my life."

Freeman's career highlights include work as a federal judge law clerk, state senator, county attorney and teacher at the University of Minnesota. He ran for governor and argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He plans to go fishing and plant a garden, and said he looks forward to not waking at 2 a.m. to worry about cases, policies and controversies.

"This is an enormously challenging job if you are going to do it justice," he said.

The difficult cases

Being the county attorney has grown more difficult because of a lack of trust and respect for the office, Freeman said. Some of that concern grew out of the case of Jamar Clark, who was killed by two Minneapolis police officers in 2015 after he reached for one of their guns during a struggle.

To gain the public's trust, Freeman decided he would no longer send such cases to a secret grand jury. He decided not to file charges against the officers — and was shouted down during a news conference when he tried to explain.

"The officers needed Clark to show his hands, and it ended up with the officers taking him down," he said. "There were other ways to de-escalate the situation. But my job was to decide if the cops acted criminally, not if I liked the way they handled the situation."

Andrew Luger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota at the time, found insufficient evidence to file federal criminal civil rights charges against the officers. Freeman said that reinforced his belief that his office had made the right decision not to charge them.

While other controversial cases would come across his desk, Freeman knew the stakes were higher in the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police during his arrest over a counterfeit $20 bill used at a convenience store in 2020. The evidence against the officers, which included a video shot by a bystander showing one officer putting his knee on Floyd's neck, made the prosecution easier, he said.

Upset with perceptions about how Freeman's office would handle the case, local politicians and Floyd's family went to Gov. Tim Walz and demanded that Attorney General Keith Ellison take over the case. Freeman said he and Ellison agreed to "do it 50-50 because Lake Street needed to stop burning," referring to riots that were happening in Minneapolis.

In the cross hairs of critics

One of Freeman's longtime critics is Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. After Floyd's death, she said, "People needed to force him to file charges. It took four days to make arrests. People thought the officers were going to get away with it ... everything that happened in Minneapolis was because of Freeman."

Gross complained about Freeman's record of jailing Black people and alleged that his office is dismissive to crime victims and their family members. But Freeman pointed to policies that sent juveniles to diversion programs instead of jail and the creation of a domestic violence service center that he said has helped more than 10,000 people.

Recently, Freeman said his office would no longer prosecute people caught with small amounts of marijuana or ask for bail on 17 nonviolent crimes. People who want to expunge allowable offenses from their records will get assistance.

When Freeman first won the job in 1991, people of color made up 3% of the office's attorneys; they now make up 30%. Freeman didn't serve that whole time — Sen. Amy Klobuchar held the post from 1999 to 2007.

Committed to public service

Gary Haugen met Freeman as they stood in line at the University of Minnesota to register for law school classes. He said his longtime friend has always had a commitment to public service and saw his role as a way to advance criminal justice reform, not just deciding who to charge or not charge.

"I know he's always trying to do the right thing," Haugen said .

Because he thought the office had lost the public's trust in handling police involved shootings, Freeman and several other county attorneys agreed that they would turn over jurisdiction in such cases to each other for a year.

Freeman is quick to share credit for successes, such as recent cases involving protecting abortion rights and moves to ensure that the county receive a significant percentage of the state's $303 millionsettlement with opioid manufacturers. He helped form HEALS 2.0, a coalition of dozens of businesses, religious and community groups and law enforcement to fight crime in Minneapolis.

"It is critical to public safety that federal and local prosecutors work together to address violent crime, gang activity and drug trafficking," Luger said. "I'm grateful for Mike's partnership and the seamless coordination between our offices."

Looking back, forward

Freeman took a leave for several months in 2019 to be treated for alcohol addiction. Upon his return, he talked about the stress of the job. "You don't think this stuff can get to you. But guess what? It did," he said then. He remains sober, Freeman said this past week.

He announced a year ago he wouldn't run for re-election because, he joked, "my wife said she would divorce me." For his replacement, Freeman threw his support behind Hennepin County District Judge Martha Holton Dimick, who lost a close race to Mary Moriarty, the county's former chief public defender.

Freeman said he's not sure Moriarty will make the same decisions he did, and questioned if some of her past views on criminal justice will work in the new role. But he's sure she won't turn her back on justice.

"Mike, his leadership team and his entire office have provided critical support and assistance as I have prepared to hit the ground running next week," Moriarty said. "I am personally grateful to Mike for ensuring a smooth transition and wish him well."

Freeman said his greatest disappointment is not being able to prosecute several killings of young children caught in gunfire in north Minneapolis. Some cases were made, but lack of cooperation makes it a difficult task, he said.

"These families deserve justice," he said.